Friday, April 18, 2014

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GUEST OPINION: Craig Pope

Will Polk County public safety systems survive?

Craig Pope

Craig Pope

October 01, 2013

In Polk County, the current state of declining revenues and increasing costs creates an untenable position for public safety operations.

Craig Pope

Craig Pope

The continued loss of federal natural resource funding, PERS increases, escalating health insurance costs and employee cost of living increases has forced county commissioners and budget committees to make cuts in general fund expenditures that strike at the heart of public safety operations.

Our sheriff's office is no longer able to provide 24-hour patrol and response times are slower due to shortage of staff, increased call volume and assistance provided to other agencies. Our jail staffing is at a bare minimum requiring increased overtime, which leads to cost inefficiencies and poor morale.

Both sheriff's patrol and corrections staff have experienced attrition over the past year due to declining budget predictions; we expect that more deputies will seek employment with other agencies that are more solvent than Polk County. A seasoned and certified law enforcement officer carries an investment of more than $100,000 in your tax dollars. Rehiring deputies is a time-consuming process and can be especially costly if we have to hire, train and certify new officers to replace those we lose to other agencies or budget cuts.

The Polk County District Attorney's office has experienced a 40-percent reduction in prosecutors and administrative staff over the past few years, making it difficult to prosecute all levels of crime that our citizens expect. This has a ripple effect through the entire criminal justice system.

Because public safety is a system, weaknesses in any area of the system impact outcomes. As a result of weak financial support and low staffing, the system starts to decay to a point where criminal elements realize where they can be the most successful.

The Polk County Board of Commissioners has deliberated for several years over the appropriate path to funding a system that once relied on timber taxes to support our general fund budget. Congress' failing to restore federal natural resource revenues and jobs that historically built many Oregon communities will result in the eventual degradation of services that must be provided by county government.

There are good proposals directed toward solving the gridlock of natural resource policies that would avoid the direct impact to local property taxpayers, but the politics surrounding the proposed solutions seem sadly predictable. The current "bridge funding" that is being offered to 33 Oregon counties will help, but it represents about 30 percent of the immediate need in Polk County to restore services of less than five years ago, and it is one-time money that we cannot build a budget from.

It is my hope that Congress will finally agree on a permanent solution, but it is my opinion that we cannot wait any longer to have this conversation as a community about how we prioritize our needs and the methods we will accept to financially support those priorities before we lose them.

That is why the Polk County Board of Commissioners agreed to put a 60 cents per $1,000 public safety levy on the November ballot. The intent is to give our constituency the opportunity to tell us how to proceed. We don't feel it is responsible management to wait until we have slipped over the fiscal cliff to sound an alarm, nor to keep standing by expecting Congress to finally come to the rescue.

We realize that the timing of this levy is not ideal, and that many folks are on fixed incomes that make this tax suggestion a decision between wants and needs. I would ask that you consider supporting this levy so that we can continue to make our county an undesirable place for criminals to do business.

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Craig Pope is a member of the Polk County Board of Commissioners.

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