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County Will Tap Reserves To Pay Sheriff Decision Avoids Layoffs But May Imperil Bond Rating

Spokane County commissioners said Monday they’re unwilling to play the role of Grinch by laying off employees right before Christmas.

Instead, they’ll tap the county’s scant reserves to cover, at least partially, a budget shortfall in the Sheriff’s Department caused primarily by overtime.

But commissioners warned that this is the last time they’ll be surprised by Sheriff John Goldman and will move next year to enact budgetary controls.

“It’s wrong to put us in that kind of pickle or bind,” Commissioner Steve Hasson said.

Goldman was in Washington, D.C., on Monday and was unavailable for comment.

He told county managers last week he needs $605,665 to finish out the year.

Undersheriff Mike Aubrey said Hasson and two former commissioners cut the department’s 1995 overtime budget by a half-million dollars late last year.

“They knew it wouldn’t work,” Aubrey said, “and now they’re surprised.”

The number of law enforcement calls is up 12 percent this year, he said. Violent crimes shot up 19 percent in 1994 over 1993.

Aubrey noted it costs every citizen in unincorporated areas only $77 for law enforcement annually. The cost is $113 in Pierce County and more than $150 for Spokane city residents, he said.

County managers are hoping the sheriff can cut his request by $200,000 by selling a pair of surplus helicopters.

Commissioners are expected today to decide how much money to give Goldman and where it will come from. Marshall Farnell, the county’s director of budget and finance, said there really is only one source for emergency cash - the county’s rainy-day account, now estimated at $550,000.

Wall Street bond-rating companies already have warned Spokane County about letting its reserves fall too low.

“I have no intention of laying people off this close to Christmas,” county commission Chairman Phil Harris said. “It’s just not in my makeup.”

Hasson said that to prevent future sheriff’s bailouts, commissioners should exercise more control over his budget.

Among the possibilities, he said, are to dole out the sheriff’s money monthly to ensure he stays within budget.

Another control would be to require the sheriff to craft a line-item budget and then instruct him on which areas he can and cannot trim, Hasson said.

A third option is to require the sheriff to meet certain performance standards - such as cutting the number of people ranked lieutenant and higher by 10 percent - to receive budget increases.

A worst-case scenario, Hasson said, would be invoking an obscure state law that calls upon big spenders to reimburse the county personally for up to four times the amount they overspend.

, DataTimes