Small towns struggle to pay rising sheriff’s bill

THURSDAY, DEC. 22, 2011

The arrival of the bill from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office can be an annual occurrence of heartburn for some small towns in south Spokane County that contract with the agency for law enforcement. Rising costs conflict with shrinking tax revenue in towns that can have an annual general fund budget in the low five figures.

The Sheriff’s Office began using a different formula to set rates in 2011, tying contract costs to the number of calls for service. Rockford paid $26,317 in 2010 and the rate jumped up to $39,618 in 2011. Rockford’s 2011 general fund budget was $235,000. “That’s when the red flag went up,” said Rockford Mayor Micki Harnois. “It’s to the point now where we just can’t afford it.”

The rate took such a big jump because of the new funding formula, said Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. Rockford has the highest number of calls in the small towns, he said.

County commissioners voted to put a 10 percent annual price increase cap on costs, but it only applies to increases after the new funding formula was set for 2011, Knezovich said. In 2012 Rockford’s rate is scheduled to drop to $34,000, he said.

Fairfield pays a relatively high amount ($34,196 in 2011) because of its population, said Mayor Ed Huber. “I try to look at our budget and the challenges we have in our town and try to compare it with what the sheriff is dealing with,” he said. “We have a law enforcement presence. It may not be as much as we would like sometimes.”

Huber said the town also receives court and jail services. “I view that as a system that has to be maintained every day,” he said. “We might only need it once a year, but it’s there when we need it.”

Waverly town council member David Stark, who works as an accountant for Spokane County, said his town has not yet voted to approve the 2011 interlocal agreement with the Sheriff’s Office. “We continue to pay our bills,” he said. “We do need their services.”

However, the council is concerned that the 2011 law enforcement bill was $7,300 for a town of only 100 residents that has an annual general fund budget of about $25,000, he said. “It’s a lot of money,” he said. Residents just outside the town limits don’t pay anything extra for law enforcement and that has council members wondering if the contract is fair, Stark said.

The council remains concerned even though the 2012 cost is projected to drop to $6,300. “We can’t really afford that much,” Stark said.

This year Spangle solved the problem of paying for its contract by passing a law enforcement levy to collect the $16,000 needed. Passing a similar levy would be a “tough consideration” in Waverly, said Stark. Huber said he was surprised the levy passed, but doesn’t think it would be approved in Fairfield.

Harnois said Knezovich came to a recent city council meeting to discuss the rate changes. “They’re looking at different options to help us cut costs,” she said. “We didn’t come to any decision or conclusion.”

Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard also attended the meeting. “It was a good conversation,” he said. “Small towns financially are struggling. The struggle for them is probably much more real and tangible than it is for a large entity like our own.”

Richard said he heard concerns from Rockford that the town is billed for traffic stops that occur within the town limits even if the people don’t live in Rockford. “I’m willing to look at this,” Richard said. “They do have a lot of transient traffic that is coming back and forth from Worley.”

Knezovich said he hopes to have more details for the towns by mid-January. “It’s just a matter of figuring out if there’s anything we can do to lower the costs for them,” he said.

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