WENATCHEE — A group of Chelan County sheriff’s deputies and supervisors appealed to county commissioners Monday to stop cutting their budget.
“It’s starting to affect our ability to patrol,” said Deputy Mike Lamon.
As a result of budget cuts, the sheriff’s office is switching to a new shift system which will leave the majority of the county unpatrolled by any deputies for two hours every day, added Sgt. Chris Foreman.
The nine deputies and supervisors spoke with commissioners Monday afternoon in response to funding cuts ordered by the board to balance next year’s budget. All but one of the officers came in on their day off and were dressed in street clothes. Lt. Maria Agnew was in uniform, and was first to talk with commissioners about emergency management issues.
The sheriff’s budget — the largest in the county’s general fund — will be reduced by more than $500,000 in 2010.
All county departments were asked to make significant cuts to help fill a $2 million hole in the budget. That comes on top of reductions already made last March and July to cover revenue shortfalls brought on by the weak economy.
Several employees lost their jobs and many more are expected to be laid off by the end of the year.
Sheriff Mike Harum was unable to fill eight vacant deputy positions this year, and plans to lay off one deputy and an administrative specialist by year’s end.
“If there are any more cuts … it’s going to be my job,” Lamon said.
Deputies also are switching from 12-hour shifts to eight-hour shifts, which means all deputies will lose eight hours of pay each month. Harum said with the 12-hour shifts, deputies work 168 hours over four weeks. On the eight-hour shifts, deputies will work 160 hours over four weeks.
The new shifts will result in 22 hours of coverage by the sheriff’s office in most of the county.
The city of Chelan will continue to have 24-hour coverage, though, because it is specified by contract.
Commissioners told the deputies their work is appreciated, but revenues continue to decline.
“We don’t have the option of printing more money, like the federal government does,” Commissioner Doug England said, adding that raising taxes is not an acceptable option.
Commissioner Ron Walter said that while the commissioners set the overall budget for each department, it’s up to the elected officials to decide how the money is spent.
Walter said Harum, who did not attend Monday’s meeting, has stated in the past that his priority is having enough deputies on patrol.
“Yet historically that is where he takes his cuts,” Walter said. “It’s frustrating.”
Commissioners told the deputies and supervisors that they also need to talk to Harum about his spending priorities.
“I appreciate you being here,” Walter said. “This is personal. This (the budget cuts) means faces. It could mean some of these faces (in the room).”
Corp. Jason Reinfeld said that during the two hours that no deputies are patrolling the county outside of Chelan, officers would have to be called from home to respond to an emergency. As an example, he said a situation like the stabbing in Peshastin last week could have serious implications because an ambulance would not have been able to attend to the victim until sheriff’s deputies arrived to make sure the scene was safe.
“Any additional cuts will only make it worse,” he said. “On the street level, we are being affected by this.”
Contacted after the meeting for comment, Harum said it is “not true” that he cuts patrol services first to balance his budget.
“My priority is patrol,” he said. “But when they cut me the tremendous amount of money that they do, how else am I going to reduce my budget?”
Harum said the county’s contribution to his $7.4 million annual budget has gone down every year for the last 11 years, and is now at its lowest level since 1999. He said grants and contracts have filled in the gaps, and now pay for 25 of his 71 employees.
The sheriff has asked the commissioners to cut all non-mandated county services first in tough economic times, including Community Development, WSU Cooperative Extension, Ohme Gardens, Wenatchee River County Park and the Chelan County Expo Center.
He said the commissioners need to set county spending priorities “and quit putting the burden on other county officials.”