Island County Sheriff's deputy loses position to budget cuts

Island County Deputy Robert Mirabal addresses commissioners during a budget hearing Monday afternoon. As the most junior deputy, he will be laid off next year because of budget cuts. - Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Island County Deputy Robert Mirabal addresses commissioners during a budget hearing Monday afternoon. As the most junior deputy, he will be laid off next year because of budget cuts.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

The lengthy, contentious and very public process of balancing the budget — which included a sign-waving protest and late-night negotiations with unions — came to an end Tuesday as Island County commissioners adopted the final document.

In the end, five full- and part-time county employees lost their jobs in budget cuts. That included one deputy in the sheriff’s office. County officials were able to save a second deputy from being laid off in last-minute budget adjustments.

Members of the county’s largest union, Local 1845, saved the jobs of many other employees by voting just before Christmas to cut their own hours by 2.5 hours a week. That amounts to more than a 6 percent salary reduction for the 160 union members.

Monday morning, the Island County Sheriff’s Deputy Guild organized an “informational picketing” in Coupeville to press the commissioners not to lay off two deputies. That afternoon, about 80 people crowded into the commissioners’ hearing room and spilled out into the hallway to speak about the budget. It was the third well-attended public hearing on the budget.

The 25 or so speakers were divided in their opinions about the budget cutting. Many of the speakers praised the commissioners for their decisions, particularly preserving funding for non-mandated programs such as the WSU Extension and senior services.

“Safety comes in a lot of different ways and it’s not just slam-bam, thank-you ma’am, TV adventure,” South Whidbey resident Steve Erickson said, arguing that more than just law enforcement contributes to the safety of the county.

The non-mandated programs became a focus of discussions after six elected county officials and the deputy’s guild insisted that the commissioners cut non-mandated programs before turning to other departments. The commissioners did make sizable reductions in those programs, but decided not to cut them altogether.

At the meeting, a number of people argued that the safety of the community and of deputies depended on fully funding law enforcement. Island County Deputy Darren Crownover said 40 deputies handled more than 22,000 calls in 2009.

“I’m asking you to do the right thing, to look at the budget closely and fund the sheriff’s office so we don’t have to lay off any deputies,” he said.

Robert Mirabal, the deputy who will be laid off, also addressed the commissioners and described a recent incident in which he had to respond to a domestic violence incident by himself. He warned about the dangers of understaffing the department.

“Public safety should never be compromised,” he said.

After the public spoke for about two hours, the commissioners got their chance to discuss the budget.

Commissioner Angie Homola pointed out that elected officials make a lot of money and asked them to step up to the plate. In response, Sheriff Mark Brown offered to give 5 percent of his $86,000-a-year salary to the county.

Commissioner John Dean said he became “very uncomfortable” with the budget after it became clear that deputies would be laid off. Earlier in the budget process, Brown said he planned to make the prescribed 5 percent reduction in his budget by laying off Dave Hollett, the director of emergency management, and replacing him with a lieutenant. Commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola prevented the sheriff from doing this after hearing concerns from emergency management personnel.

The commissioners debated whether to require Hollett to take furlough days. The money saved from the furloughs, together with the sheriff’s salary reduction and other savings, would prevent the layoff of a deputy.

Homola argued that it was immoral to force the furlough on Hollett just because he wasn’t in a union, but the other commissioners overruled her. Price Johnson pointed out that Hollett wasn’t the only one who has faced furloughs; many people lost their jobs completely.

The positions that will be laid off include a sheriff’s deputy, a full-time civil clerk in the sheriff’s office, a half-time employee in central services, a half-time employee in the auditor’s office and a part-time Superior Court commissioner. Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks originally planned to lay off a deputy prosecutor, but he was able to find enough grant money to fund the position for another year.

In the last 14 months, county commissioners have cut about $5.2 million from the current expense fund, which will be at $21.6 million next year, because of recessionary impacts.

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