Sheriff cites budget emergency

Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley is trying to do some cost-cutting this year in anticipation of an 11 percent across-the-board county budget cut next year.

He has quickly found that it is impossible to slice that much from his budget while maintaining round-the-clock law enforcement and patrols, or a safe working environment for the men and women he sends out on the streets every day.

As a result, Hawley has joined with other sheriffs from around the state to find a more stable method of funding law and justice. The idea is that public safety and justice shouldn't have to suffer when the economy or interest rates sag. Hawley points out that some departments, like roads or independent fire districts, already have a separate and more dependable "stream of funding." In the past, Hawley has mentioned a law enforcement property-tax levy -- which would operate much like levies imposed by the Whidbey Island Hospital District or fire districts -- as a possibility.

Whatever the solution, Hawley said Island County needs it soon. The situation in this county and many others, he said, is a simply an emergency.

"We're caught in this vortex that has to be solved," he said last week. "It's unconscionable to have to send men and women out there into a situation that is not safe. It's unsafe for the deputies and unsafe for the public."

Currently, the sheriff's office has five unfilled deputy positions. Hawley said it makes no sense to fill the positions since it takes a year to train a new deputy. By the time they are ready to go on duty, he would have to lay them off.

An 11 percent cut in his agency's budget, Hawley said, would amount to eight positions he'll have to cut next January. With a current staff of 35 deputies -- including the sheriff himself -- 19 jailers and six clerical workers, Hawley said he is just able to maintain 24-hour coverage on Whidbey Island.

The deputies are divided among three precincts -- North Whidbey, South Whidbey and Camano Island. Two precincts -- those on North and South Whidbey, encompass 75 square miles. If the department loses another deputy, Hawley said, 24-hour policing in the county will end.

With fewer deputies on the road, Hawley said, the response time to 911 calls has lengthened. And deputies have to respond to potentially dangerous situations without backup.

In anticipation of the budget cuts, he recently "downgraded" a lieutenant's position, which is more of a supervisory position, to a sergeant's position in order to save $4,000 a year. The move causes a change in command at the South Whidbey precinct. Lieutenant Evan Tingstad replaces Sgt. Ray Tash this year.

Hawley said the savings allows him to maintain his patrol schedule.

"Right now we need more people on the roads," he said.

Hawley also eliminated a chief criminal deputy position and is losing two detectives to retirement. Those positions are "sitting there open," Hawley said. In addition, Hawley has done away with several department programs, such as the SWAT team.

The sheriff's office is getting along with less than other law enforcement agencies. Its clerical staff is only half the size of that maintained by the Oak Harbor Police Department, but has to do far more work.

"We handle 10 times the paperwork they do," he said.

The budget crisis comes from a number of causes, he said, including the tax-cutting initiatives, the recession, lowering of interest rates, and a drop in sales tax collections. Hawley said the budget problems can't be solved on a local level, but must be remedied in Olympia. That's why he's joined with the other sheriffs, some of whom are facing county bankruptcy, to lobby Olympia.

They haven't decided on their solution yet, Hawley said, but the sheriffs hope to have their plan together by Oct. 1.

The sheriff's budget hearing with the county commissioners is set for May 7.

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