Though the town of Rockford hasn’t paid its $32,000 bill for law enforcement this year, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich promised to not abandon the small community.
“I will never, ever, say I’m not coming,” he said at a town hall meeting at the McIntosh Grange on Wednesday. “I, as sheriff, cannot let crime get out of control in Rockford.”
The town has offered to pay $25,000, but Spokane County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said reducing Rockford’s costs would have the effect of raising the rates for other small towns. She said she understands that the budget is stretched thin. “I get that,” she said. “The last thing we want to do is bankrupt you.”
The actual cost to provide service for the calls received from inside Rockford city limits is $70,000 a year, Knezovich said. The town has the highest number of calls among the small towns in the county. “The county is doing everything we can to keep your costs down,” he said. “We can’t reduce it below what Fairfield is paying. That is really not fair.”
The town of Fairfield was charged $24,193 for 2013, according to Fairfield town clerk Cheryl Loeffler.
According to 2010 census data, Fairfield’s population was 612; Rockford’s is 470.
In recent years the county commissioners have capped the amount the bill can increase every year, Knezovich said. “They’ve actually reduced your bill several times,” he said. Towns also get a credit when their calls for service are lower than expected. Rockford got a $13,000 credit in 2012, he said.
City Councilman Larry Van Every compared Knezovich to the sheriff of Nottingham. “I don’t want to be turned upside down and shaken for everything I’ve got,” he said. “What’s the difference in the level of service if we don’t pay anything?”
O’Quinn said the sheriff would not be obligated to respond to reports of vandalism, theft or other minor crimes if the town doesn’t pay its bill. “Technically, the sheriff would only need to respond to the emergency 911 calls,” she said. “I would rather not have that happen.”
State law requires towns to provide law enforcement services either by hiring police officers or contracting it out, Knezovich said. “You have a community to protect,” he said. “It’s our responsibility, folks. We need to get it fixed.”
Resident Kathy Creed said the City Council first discussed imposing a utility tax to pay for the Sheriff’s Office contract months ago. It should be done so the town can raise the money it needs, she said.
“We can pay our bill and get busy and take care of business,” she said. “We want protection. We want our good name back. I don’t understand why the council hasn’t acted.”
One attempt to pay the bill – a law enforcement levy – failed at the polls in February.
City Councilwoman Carrie Roecks said the town is also facing steep increases in water and sewer rates to pay for a required $1.5 million upgrade to the town’s sewer lagoon. “That’s why we hesitate to raise the other taxes,” she said.
Some have said that since residents pay property taxes, they shouldn’t have to pay extra for law enforcement, Knezovich said. The property taxes paid by Rockford residents largely go to Rockford and aren’t passed on to his department, he said.
“What happens if this bankrupts us?” said former city Councilman Steve Meyer.
“If you disincorporate, we inherit the problems, but we also inherit your taxes,” Knezovich said. People would receive services from the county just like any other county resident if that were to happen, he said.
“That’s a decision you as a community have to make,” O’Quinn said.