December 4, 2013 in City

Spokane County sheriff’s budget gets boost

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Spokane County will give its sheriff’s budget another $283,000 to pay for unforeseen costs incurred in 2013.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich on Tuesday told county commissioners his department continues to feel budget fallout from retirements, injuries, overtime and the cost of hiring new deputies.

The amount approved Tuesday is less than half of what the sheriff requested in June, when the budget problem became apparent.

Budget cuts in recent years have trimmed his commissioned force from 249 to 222 deputies in 2013. The loss was even larger in staffing of unincorporated portions of the county where the force is down by 34 deputy positions.

“We just do not have the staffing to keep up,” the sheriff told commissioners.

And the problem is unlikely to be solved soon.

Six deputies are reportedly seeking new jobs with the city of Spokane, which is hiring 25 new officers.

Eight or more deputies are expected to retire next year, and the county will need to cash out accumulated benefits such as vacation time and sick leave. One of the potential retirees is a lieutenant who has a large accumulation of benefits.

“Eight people retiring will put a massive hole in my budget,” Knezovich said.

The cost of cashing out six veteran deputies who retired this year was $133,000. Retirees can take up to 400 hours of accumulated vacation as cash and 720 hours of sick leave.

The problem is more than money, the sheriff said. He has four detective positions to fill but won’t do that until he can restore patrol staffing.

Three deputies are on medical leave after a June 2012 shooting incident. A fourth has returned to light duty.

In efforts to find new hires, the department is seeing less interest in the job and a higher rate of rejection of applicants who fail background checks or can’t cut it in training.

“If we have 20 candidates, we might get one we can hire,” he said. “Integrity issues are washing them out.”

At the same time the sheriff faces staffing problems, his calls for service are increasing as population grows, he said.

The department’s staffing ratio for the unincorporated area has fallen from 1.03 to 0.73 officers per 1,000 residents during the past two years, Knezovich said. Spokane ranks next to last among Washington counties in that statistic, he said.

Despite the challenges, the sheriff said he is pleased crime rates have fallen steadily in recent years. Spokane Valley property crime is down 12 percent since 2004. Violent crime is down in unincorporated areas and Spokane Valley. Those gains show that his staff is working hard, Knezovich said.

The budget and staffing problems come as the Spokane County Deputy Sheriffs Association takes the county into binding arbitration over stalled labor contract talks.

The deputies are seeking pay increases of 2 to 5 percent from the time their contract expired at the end of 2011 through 2014.

Commissioner Todd Mielke said the cost of the increases plus retroactive pay could be as much as $6.5 million.

Mielke chided the deputies for not being willing to help the county balance its budget and maintain sheriff staffing by moderating their salary and benefit demands. “That’s a hard one to ignore,” he said.

The ability of the deputies to force binding arbitration has created anxiety among non-uniformed workers who fear they could have their jobs cut when a large settlement gets ordered by an arbitrator, Mielke said. Non-uniformed workers are going into their fourth year without pay raises.

Knezovich said, “The ones who are caught hard in the middle are citizens.”


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