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Deputy force continues to erode

The forecast for the future of law enforcement in Island County went from bad to worse Monday, as Sheriff Mike Hawley dropped a veritable bomb of bad news in the laps of the county commissioners.

Taking advantage of the public comment portion at the board of commissioners regular Monday meeting, Hawley read aloud a memo implying that anarchy will erupt unless the sheriff's office gets more money to fill the seven patrol and detective positions that are currently vacant.

"There is nothing left for me to do," Hawley said. "I am stripped. I can't get the job done, period."

Commissioner Mike Shelton hinted on Tuesday that an assurance of future funding may be on its way.

"I think the immediate remedy is not so much that he doesn't have the current financial ability to replace those people," Shelton said. Instead, he said, what Hawley is looking for is a sort of guarantee that the board will cover the hires he needs to make.

"He wants that assurance," Shelton said. "I hope we're going to be able to provide that sooner rather than later."

Hawley's comments were the most recent in a series of budget-related jeremiads, the last occurring at a May 7 preliminary budget hearing in which the sheriff told commissioners that the expected 11 percent cut in his 2003 budget would amount to a loss of about $517,000, or the equivalent of 9.5 deputy positions.

At Monday's meeting, Hawley told the board that another deputy, Rob Hardcastle, resigned Friday, while yet another recently suffered a debilitating medical condition that may prevent his returning to work. Because the board has not provided funds, he explained, he has left these and other open positions temporarily unfilled.

Hawley said that it makes no sense "ethically or fiscally" to hire new employees when there's the chance of simply turning around and laying them off next year when the next round of budget cuts are expected.

He said deputies "are not simply plucked off the street." Even experienced officers require a minimum of six months in local field training before they can contribute to the county's force.

Even if a new deputy was hired today, Hawley said, she or he could not begin working solo until January.

"With over 20 percent of my front line positions unfilled, I am now no longer able to provide basic law enforcement services to the citizens of Island County," he said. "This means that we are in a state of emergency."

Without immediate action by the board, Hawley said, all 24-hour law enforcement services -- including drug investigations, traffic safety, child abuse and domestic violence prevention -- will "cease to exist for all intents and purposes." Hawley said that until he gets a sign from the board that they support local law enforcement, things will only continue to unravel.

Although Shelton said he is not sure whether the recent spate of deputy resignations is being driven by the budget or some other issue, he expressed concern about slowing down the drain on the sheriff's resources.

"We need to get some resolution for the sheriff's department so there's stability in terms of people's future thinking," Shelton said.

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