King County Sheriff Sue Rahr likens her dilemma to operating a hospital.
With $7.2 million to pare from her agency’s budget next year, it will be like “eliminating all preventative care and operating only an emergency room,” she said.
Having already cut $10 million out of her budget in the last three years, Rahr said, “the cumulative effect is huge.”
Like tax-dependent agencies everywhere, Rahr’s department has been hard-hit by the current recession and the legacy of Initiative 747, which put a 1 percent cap on property-tax increases.
King County will have a $60 million shortfall to make up, and criminal justice, which takes up 70 percent of the county’s general fund and includes the Sheriff’s Department, can’t escape the budget cycle unscathed.
“That’s the only money that is discretionary,” Rahr said of the general fund, noting the other funds in the county’s budget are obligated dollars. “All of criminal justice is funded out of the general fund. And the pool of money is limited. They don’t have choices.”
Rahr said if the budget scenario does not change, her department will be cutting roughly 71 positions.
“Twenty-eight will be fully functional police officers,” she said.
Those positions will be coming largely out of King County’s unincorporated area. That’s because, Rahr said, about half of her $150 million budget comes from contracts to provide police coverage to 12 cities in the county. Those entities are paying for the staffing and are therefore guaranteed that level of protection. That means the cuts will have to come from the other half of Rahr’s budget.
“I can only cut the deputies assigned in unincorporated King County,” she said.
So Rahr is now essentially doing triage – putting the most manpower behind the highest-priority offenses, which she said are crimes against persons. Those are the headline kinds of crimes – the rapes, robberies and murders that are typically single, non-related offenses.
The other kinds of crimes – those involving property, and which often occur in patterns that require detective legwork – will have to take a back seat, after the initial response from a deputy.
“We’re no longer going to have a detective to do the follow-up,” Rahr said. “We’ll send a deputy, but there won’t be a detective.”
She added, “that’s not a very efficient or effective way to handle property crimes. You’re not going to have a detective stringing (incidents) together.”
Still, she asserted, county residents don’t have to worry that they could be imperiled due to staff cutbacks.
The goal, she said, is to keep first-response times consistent.
“I don’t want citizens to think their lives are in danger,” she said. “My top priority is keeping response times consistent.
“But the investigation of property crimes, and (crime-) prevention programs are going to be severely eroded.
“It’s like shutting down preventative medical care.”
One aspect of the Sheriff Department dilemma is the stance that its law officers have continued to take, refusing to drop down in their contractual cost of living allowances. Rahr called the issue a “lightning rod,” but said it’s no silver bullet.
“Even if they gave it (the COLA) all back, it’s just $3 million more,” she said. “It doesn’t solve the problem.”
One facet that could lessen the blow, and not just for the Sheriff’s Department but all of the county’s criminal-justice system as well as the coffers of King County cities, is what’s on the Nov. 2 ballot: Proposition 1.
If given the green light by voters, the measure would authorize King County to impose a 2/10ths of 1 percent sales tax, to be split 60 percent and 40 percent between the county and cities.
The county’s share would go toward criminal-justice purposes, as well as rebuilding a juvenile justice center in Seattle. And 30 percent of what the cities collect would have to be used for criminal justice or fire-protection purposes, according to the King County Local Voters’ Pamphlet.
While it won’t enable the county to expand its criminal-justice services, the measure would enable the county to maintain what services it does have.
Rahr noted that 1/10th of that measure – half – would sunset after three years.
“For three years, it’s gonna buy us some time,” she said.