Spokane County government faces a partial shutdown because of a budget crisis triggered by rising crime.
Commissioners, desperate to find $600,000 in emergency cash for the sheriff, said they might have to shut down the courthouse for most of December.
The courts and other law and justice functions would remain open, they said. A skeleton crew might operate some other departments, but most employees, including commissioners, would be sent home without pay.
“This $600,000 came as a total surprise,” commission Chairman Phil Harris said. “The last thing I want to do is shut the county down. But if I have to, that’s what I’ll do.”
On Wednesday, Sheriff John Goldman told county managers that his 1995 budget for deputies and the jail was falling $605,665 short. Two-thirds of the money is for overtime.
The deficit does not include $450,000 in emergency cash that commissioners infused into the sheriff’s account a few weeks ago.
“We had almost reconciled everything, we had almost made it to the finish line, and here comes Godzilla - squish,” Commissioner Steve Hasson said.
“It’s probably going to force the closure of the courthouse.”
The sheriff said he could pare down his request to $400,000 if two surplus helicopters sell next month. More than 60 people have inquired about the choppers. Sealed bids will be opened later this month with a minimum asking price of $145,000 for both, but Goldman is hoping for more.
Budget and finance officer Marshall Farnell is panning the county’s financial stream, hoping to strike hidden cash.
If no money can be found, Harris said, most of the courthouse could cease operations the last three weeks of the year.
Goldman said commissioners were warned in September that his overtime budget was down to fumes - drained by a 12 percent rise in law-enforcement calls.
Since 1985, the number of calls has more than quadrupled from 36,000 to nearly 159,144, reflecting population increases and a more violent society.
“This county is bleeding,” Goldman said. “Violent crime is growing faster here than anyplace in this state.
“(Politicians) run on this get-tough-on-crime agenda,” he said. “It is time for them to really fund the priorities they have established. Rhetoric doesn’t stop people from dying, cops do.”
Union leaders are scrambling in preparation for the worst.
Amie Swenson, president of Spokane County Courthouse Employees Local 1553, said she’s tired of her 400 employees suffering every year because the sheriff’s department cannot live within its budget.
“I’m so shocked, I’m speechless and don’t know what to do,” she said.
Some employees said they would be willing to give up their pay for a few days - if sheriff’s employees did.
“You can’t keep cutting, slashing and burning the administrative departments every year in favor of criminal justice,” one woman said.
Harris said he shoulders some of the blame because after taking office, he insisted the sheriff, prosecutor and courts escalate their war on crime. In the meantime, the county had no more money to pay for it.
Voters earlier this month may have thrown the county a lifeline for next year. A one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase appears to have passed and would raise $12 million over three years.
Still, Goldman already is asking for $2.1 million more next year than budgeted to pay for 28 new deputies, corporals and support staff members.
The new hires could dent the sheriff’s whopping annual overtime bill, which this year is projected to be $1.8 million. The total 1995 overtime bill for the county is estimated at $2.8 million.
Hasson said it’s time Goldman, a new sheriff, learns to tighten the department’s belt by reassigning top managers to lower-paying positions.
Savings also could result if lower-paid deputies were forced to work overtime instead of veterans.
“Do they need all the lieutenants they have, do they need all the captains they have, do they need two undersheriffs?” Hasson asked.
“Law and justice is our first priority, and we will cut everything we can to ensure its integrity, but we need to make sure the sheriff is not taking advantage of that philosophy,” he said.
“John is a great cop, but he doesn’t understand the first thing about finances. That’s why you have county commissioners.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT IN ARREARS The sheriff’s department needs $605,665 to finish out the year. To find the money, county commissioners might have to shut down the courthouse, except for law and justice functions. Law Enforcement $195,800 for deputy overtime; $47,000 to buy back unused vacation, as required by the unions; $18,700 to reimburse dog handers for the animals’ care (New requirement of Fair Labor Standards Act); $45,000 for retirees’ medical insurance premiums; $43,000 for crime lab supplies; $5,000 for community services; $33,000 for garage; $14,800 for Crime Check. Total: $402,800 Jail $202,865 for corrections officers’ overtime. J. Todd Foster