POLK COUNTY — After the 2013 public safety levy failed, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office was cut to seven positions in patrol, and chances were slim that a minor property crime would be prosecuted.
District Attorney Aaron Felton was leading the Polk County District Attorney’s Office at the time, and described his decisions on what to prosecute as “triage.” He said he had to make tough decisions about what cases he would take up and which of those his office had the resources to take to trial.
“Things were getting backlogged,” Felton said during a presentation to Dallas Rotary members. “We were not able to get the job done for a county of this size.”
Polk County Sheriff Mark Garton remembers those thin times because he was one of the seven left working patrol.
“We worked noon to 10 p.m. If other things happened after those hours, sometimes we went out after hours, sometimes we didn’t, depending on the call,” Garton said. “It was a rough two years.”
In 2015, the county asked voters to consider the levy again, but this time for less money. Voters approved it by a healthy margin.
The current levy pays for 12 patrol deputies; five jail staff positions; three prosecutors; two DA support staff positions; and two juvenile detention beds.
Garton said, along with restoring 24-hour patrol, he’s added a school resource officer to work in Perrydale, Falls City, and Luckiamute Valley Charter Schools, and was able to reinstate the Polk County Interagency Narcotics Team in 2016.
The sheriff’s office now takes 24,000 calls per year, a 71 percent increase since before the levy.
With more deputy DAs and support staff, criminal prosecutions have increased by about 800 cases per year, a 66 percent jump. Driving under the influence of intoxicants convictions have increased by 200, or 105 percent, while drug cases have increased 170 percent (286 in 2015 compared to 773 in 2017).
In the DA’s office, Felton said his office has been able to participate in: Drug and Mental Health courts; multi-disciplinary teams working to prevent child abuse and elder abuse; and a sexual abuse response team.
“All of those things go to crime prevention and involvement in our community in ways that we were just not able to do before,” he said.
Four years later, Polk County officials are asking for that support again. This time they say a yes vote will protect the investment in personnel and programs that make the county a safer place to live and work.
Garton said that the levy doesn’t just benefit people living in rural Polk County. He said people who commit crimes are taken to the Polk County Jail and prosecuted by the Polk County District Attorney’s Office. If convicted, they may serve a jail sentence and are then released into the supervision of Polk County Community Corrections.
“It’s not about one agency or entity,” Garton said. “It’s about the system, and we all have to work together because one agency can’t do every part of the system. It’s not built that way.”
The proposed levy will be for five-years at 42.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on properties. Polk County Administrator Greg Hansen said he landed on that number by calculating the cost of maintaining current staff, plus adding a deputy in year one and possibly another in year three or four, if needed.
He projects that the county will levy the full amount over the life of the proposed levy, unlike the current levy. The county has routinely levied less because it received federal money related to actual timber harvests or legislation, a bill called Secure Rural Schools, that replaced revenue lost when logging was reduced decades ago. Using timber revenue as an offset was promised to voters in the first levy campaign.
Hansen said this time, he isn’t counting on a renewal of the SRS bill, and any timber cut money will be directed toward paying for building maintenance.
“I anticipate that we will levy the full amount all five years unless something unexpected happens,” Hansen said.
If the levy is reauthorized, the fifth year of the 2015 levy would be negated by the new measure, so taxpayers would not be charged for both.
Garton said the reason the county leaders decided to renew a year early is to keep employees from seeking other jobs due to uncertainty.
“I don’t like scaring people, but it’s also reality,” Garton said. “If it doesn’t pass next month, deputies will leave, even if we say that we’re going out again (in November). They won’t take that chance. They will start applying elsewhere. I know because that happened in 2013.”
He said even if the levy fails in May but passes in November, the county may have to fill positions left vacant by employees seeking more job security.
“It’s $150,000 to train a new deputy in the first year,” he said.
If voters decline the levy, Garton said 12 of the 16 patrol positions would have to be cut, leaving four and two detectives.
“I wouldn’t say it would be as bad as it was, but it would be really bad,” Garton said. “We would probably be back to 10 hours per day, would be my guess. Maybe a little more, but it would be rough.”
Felton said the five levy-supported positions would be cut, taking the office back to giving priority to serious crimes over DUIIs or “quality of life crimes,” like misdemeanor property crimes.
Garton said he believes the county has been responsible with the levy over the last four years. He said it hasn’t taken more than it needed and restored the patrol hours and programs elected officials said they would.
“All of those promises have been upheld. To me it shows that we are being very accountable to the people that we made those promises to,” he said. “We did what we said we were going to do, and that is what we are going to do moving forward.”
Ballot Measure 27-129
When is the election: May 21 Special District Election. Ballots will be mailed out the week of May 2.
What: Polk County public safety levy reauthorization.
Amount: Up to 42.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on properties.
Duration: Five years.
What it would pay for? The levy would maintain what it pays for now – 12 patrol deputies; five jail staff members; three prosecutors in the district attorney office; two support staff members in the DA’s office; and two juvenile detention beds. The new levy would also add one patrol deputy in year one, and potentially another in year three or four, if needed.
How much does the current levy cost? The county can levy up to 45 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, but due to federal timber money offsets, has charged an average of 33 cents per $1,000.