The belt-tightening instinct

A shocking statistic emerged from the County Council’s discussion of the Sheriff’s office and its overspending. And we don’t mean $5 million, which is the estimated 2013 overrun (and is plenty troubling all by itself).

No, a statistic that loomed large was 70 percent. That’s the portion of the county budget that goes for law enforcement, the jail, courts and related criminal justice costs. In 1990, those costs were 50 percent of the budget.

Think of it this way: If you care about roads or parks, youth programs, senior services or other aspects of county government, the share of county money available for those things has eroded by 40 percent.

The sheriff, whether elected or appointed (as Sheriff Ty Trenary happens to be) is not the average department head. His elective office is more independent than the rest of the county bureaucracy. So, budgetary progress depends on both sides acting with trust and patience: Trust that the council and sheriff are equally committed to cutting costs without hampering public safety; and patience to embrace prudent strategies that don’t bring quick savings.

Can the sheriff avoid the level of red ink spilled in 2013? The answer should be “yes.” The $5 million overage includes $2.8 million that was a retroactive payout to deputies whose contract expired in 2011. That cost, which was no surprise to the council, will not repeat.

Additionally, overtime was a big factor in the overrun. It can and must be addressed by competent management of staffing and schedules, especially at the jail. Trenary needs to bring order to a chaotic system that has resulted in too many overtime shifts and, worse, frequent payments required under a policy that pays deputies who are mistakenly bypassed for overtime shifts.

A problem that will not be solved quickly or cheaply is the jail. This tangle of legal risks, staffing issues and medical costs has dogged the county for decades.

Some root causes are addressed by Trenary’s willingness to limit the number and kinds of inmates other jurisdictions ship to his jail and his desire to divert mental health cases to more appropriate programs and facilities. In addition to being humane, this approach will reduce some staffing and overtime costs.

Still, about $800,000 is needed for medical staffing and services if the county hopes to break the pattern of jail deaths, injuries and settlements. This expenditure is dwarfed by the cost of lawsuits and the potential burden of federal oversight. It is a prudent investment, even if it frustrates the popular urge to close the budget gap immediately.

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