No new taxes mean too few deputies in county

You’ve heard the story before. Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart keeps asking for more money to hire deputies to meet basic staffing levels. County Executive Bob Drewel keeps telling him the money simply isn’t there to do as much as they both would like. It’s a vicious circle.

What’s the answer? Nobody seems to know. Thanks to an already tight budget and the aftermath of Initiative 695, the county is in a position of trying to do more with less. The 2001 budget highlights a $1.7 million loss in criminal justice funding. And the county is absorbing the costs of deputies hired and paid for with federal grants that are quickly phasing out.

Now deputies are threatening to picket outside the county courthouse Friday if Drewel doesn’t get serious about adding more deputies to their roster.

Suggestions of apathy don’t sit well with the county executive’s office.

Drewel promised to give the sheriff’s office 25 deputies in five years and he’s already gone well beyond that commitment, said deputy executive Joni Earl.

That’s not much consolation to Sheriff Bart as he tries to explain to people why it sometimes takes so long for a deputy to respond to their calls. Yet, he doesn’t seem to have the solution, either.

Don’t bother with the annexation argument, which suggests that the need for deputies has decreased. Yes, parts of unincorporated county have been annexed by nearby cities. But the remaining areas are still growing and the number of deputies isn’t keeping up with it. And when the county began to make improvements, it started from an extremely understaffed position.

Drewel and the county council have been very supportive, increasing the criminal justice budget despite loss of revenue to annexations. Drewel and his office also deserve considerable credit for working to get a new jail and facilities for the sheriff’s office — not an easy task while deciding the future of the county’s offices and other hot topics.

Still, the staffing problem is unresolved.

"The bottom line is we need money," Bart said.

That is the bottom line, but it’s not that simple. Drewel can’t throw money at the sheriff’s office to hire some new deputies and leave it at that. There’s something called the ripple effect that has to be taken into consideration. For each deputy hired, the county also has to pay for equipment, more jail beds to accommodate the arrests that deputy will make, more prosecutors to handle the cases and so on. You get the picture.

Bart is right about one thing. "The whole system has to be made well at the same time. There’s the problem. It’s a huge hot potato. It’s getting worse because of the growth."

It’s time for the county to toss the hot potato to the people. County officials cringe at the thought of even hinting at a special levy to address criminal justice problems in our area. And they should. Tax increases should always be a last option.

We’re all going to have to make up our minds. Either we all (including incorporated residents who benefit considerably from county government services) want improved criminal justice services in Snohomish County or we’re going to stop complaining about the lack of it.

Read our lips: No new taxes may mean too few deputies.

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