Details: King County Sheriff’s budget warning (and jail talk)

That’s King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, talking about one of the budget cuts she may have to make if the county’s budget picture still looks ugly by fall; she says the thought of having to stop investigating certain kinds of crimes makes her “sick.” She spoke Friday night at SeaTac City Hall, in one of several public meetings she’s called to talk about potential effects of massive budget cuts ordered by county leadership; the possible cuts in the criminal-justice system could affect West Seattle not only through services the county provides for the city such as prosecution, but also because many of the cuts would have to be made in the ranks that serve unincorporated areas such as White Center, right next door. But the first headline of the night for West Seattle interests was what the sheriff had to say when asked about the jail-sites situation – and that’s where our full report begins;

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

A Seattle city jail built on either of two West Seattle sites – or any other site – would be a “horrible waste of taxpayers’ money,” according to King County Sheriff Sue Rahr.

That declaration came in response to a question from a White Center resident attending the King County criminal-justice budget concern meeting in SeaTac last night: The 2 potential municipal-jail sites in West Seattle (as shown on this map) are very close to White Center, where Rahr’s troops are the law enforcers on the street, so what would a jail in that area mean to her?

She laughed at first and said, “I’ll be honest, it would be more convenient” — but then turned serious: “My personal opinion as your elected sheriff is that we don’t need to build more jails,” she said. “I’ve been in the criminal-justice system 29 years and I hate to see waste. When you consolidate, you can save taxpayers a lot of money.”

Rahr declared in no uncertain terms that such “consolidation” should come in the form of the county’s Regional Justice Center in Kent expanding to meet the space crunch that has the county saying it won’t have room for cities’ misdemeanor offenders. “We have capacity to build out the RJC, a lot of capacity for more jail beds … if we were to build it out for full capacity, if the staffing level could increase so all wings could be opened, we would have hundreds more jail beds, but the exec and council need to make that decision to build it out . … My opinion is that the county should have the regional responsibility for providing jail service.”

And if you think the RJC build-out is a good idea, Rahr stressed, you have to write and call those elected officials and let them know. “You’d be shocked at how few letters and e-mails they get” from citizens, she said, adding “60 to 70 e-mails would be like a 2 by 4 upside the head” — as she also noted that there’s not much rumbling about public-safety concerns at the moment because crime levels have been relatively low — with the emphasis on HAVE BEEN.

We say that, because she lamented the fact that a briefing this week looking at crime trends all over the county showed an increase in major crimes in every sector.

And as crime goes up, her budget is supposed to go down: 8.6% for the county’s criminal justice system; officers, prosecutors, courts, jail, public defenders, etc. Added to additional money she is supposed to cut by the end of this year, Rahr says she has to figure out how to cut 10 million dollars, which she says is equivalent to 100 deputy positions. The cuts won’t be evenly spread around the county, either, according to the sheriff; the dozen cities that pay King County to provide law enforcement are legally entitled to a certain level of service, so the brunt of the cuts will fall on the unincorporated areas – like White Center. Rahr’s department also polices Metro transit, she pointed out, adding it’s just been tapped to police Sound Transit, which she says means job opportunities for some deputies that might otherwise be out of a job – but still no replacement for the services that would be lost in the unincorporated areas, where 100 deputies represent more than a quarter of the force.

Storefronts like the one on 16th SW, barely a block over the line from West Seattle, might face cutbacks, Rahr warned, while asking the audience — heavily seeded with Block Watch leaders — if that concerned them. Yes, came the reply. “Even reducing (the service they provide) would be pennywise and pound-foolish,” one man proclaimed.

She touched only briefly on the other public-safety/criminal-justice departments under orders to cut, mentioning that prosecutor Dan Satterberg “has said, if we end up with these budget reductions, he will have to cut 30 prosecutors … he won’t have the resources to continue to file felony charges in certain cases. So if cities want to prosecute property felonies, they will have to handle (it) with the municipal felons who typically handle misdemeanors. There’s going to be a shifting of who pays for prosecution and who pays to put people in jail.”

Kind of like the whole jail situation itself – the county is currently trying to shift the misdemeanor inmates to cities, which as mentioned above, Rahr considers a bad idea.

Though her demeanor was calm and pleasant (as you can see in the video clip atop this report), the warnings were stark — this could just be the first round of cuts, because the county funding problem that is blamed for the cuts — the property-tax-increase cap approved by voters, then repealed, then reinstated by legislators — isn’t going away. “Right now, 911 calls are my top priority. But in 2010 or 2011 (if cuts continue), I can’t guarantee you will get a cop as quickly (as you do now).”

She did get a little feisty when describing her bottom-line intent for the meeting: “Typically the sheriff’s office hasn’t been out in the community to get people riled up, but that’s what I’m here to do. That’s why it’s important to have an elected sheriff – if I was an appointed sheriff, I couldn’t be out there doing this.” (The King County Sheriff has been elected since the late ’90s.)

Many audience members suggested a separate tax for public safety, and a belief that even tax-weary voters would approve it. Rahr reacted cautiously to the idea, repeatedly urging those in attendance to provide feedback to the elected officials who could forward such an idea — particularly King County Executive Ron Sims and County Councilmembers.

She also worked to dispel possible confusion about where her budget comes from and where county money goes. Some think criminal justice is getting money at the expense of health and human services, she acknowledged, and then went on to explain that those areas have “many sources of funding,” whereas her agency gets its money exclusively from the general fund. “That’s why an 8.6% cut for us has a much bigger impact than a 30% cut for health and human services.”

The painful irony, as Rahr sees it, is that while the squeaky wheel gets the grease, there hasn’t been much reason for anyone to “squeak” about law enforcement for a long time, as things have gone fairly well, albeit with painful episodes like the murder of White Center-based Deputy Steve Cox a year and a half ago. (His mother Joanne Cox was at last night’s meeting; the sheriff acknowledged her while mentioning how Cox fought for the creation of a Gang Unit after her son was killed.)

Before the hour-and-a-half meeting ended, one audience member summed up the predominant sentiment by saying, “I can’t BELIEVE they want to cut the sheriff’s budget.” Rahr responded ruefully, “I can’t believe it either.”

WHAT’S NEXT: In the King County budget process — Rahr has to submit her proposed budget by July 7, explaining how she would make the mandated cuts. In October, the county executive will present his budget recommendation to county councilmembers. The whole thing will be finalized somewhere around Thanksgiving. In the meantime, Rahr says another round of community forums is coming in September, when she, the prosecutor, and two presiding judges will make the rounds, and expect to have a better idea by then if such drastic cuts will definitely be necessary.

HOW TO CONTACT YOUR ELECTED COUNTY OFFICIALS: Executive Ron Sims here, County Council here (Dow Constantine represents the district that includes West Seattle), Sheriff here — she’s looking for opinions on what could be cut, what should be the highest priority, and creative ideas for cutting without decimating.

6 Replies to "Details: King County Sheriff's budget warning (and jail talk)"

  • d June 21, 2008 (11:09 am)

    Why tax-paying citizens would ever believe that building THREE new city jails – simultaneously – within King County is a superior idea to building out the existing King County Regional Justice system is beyond me. To reiterate what is happening, the southern cities of King County have joined into a coalition to site and build a jail; the north and east cities of King County are also conducting a feasibility study to site a second jail; and, the city of Seattle is siting a third.

    Do not slip into cynicism and lamentation about how things EVER got to the point where County government is threatening failure to realize its mandate by the State to protect and serve the safety of the public. Pointing fingers does nothing to solve grave problems. Thinking does. Acting does. Making your opinion heard will be more constructive. And, remember, we have the power of our vote as well – across the board in the city and county.

    Aside from the train wreck that will happen when three city jail systems attempt to link up administratively and operationally into the court system, I’m thinking that new jails are counterproductive because of another big reason. It’s unlikely that any city would build the medical and psychiatric units into their facilities which are a HUGE $$ drain. Those “special housing” units are far too expensive. Each city will likely HAVE to send those inmates who are mentally ill or have medical issues to a leased facility which, OF COURSE, is a county facilities. A bigger facility which can accommodate both the “special housing” of the cities’ and county’s future needs will be required. Where can that be BUT the KRJC and it can be built out there for far cheaper, which I believe is Sheriff Rahr’s point. Yes, it is less convenient, but even Sheriff Rahr states that is less of an issue than the overall operational costs associated with separate facilities.

    Good and thinking people of King County and West Seattle – join others in voicing your concerns to ALL of the County Council and to the County Executive on the links provided above. Also, write to your city council members as well. It will only take a short amount of time out of your day, but will give the “Big Deciders” the feedback and further motivation they need to stay on track in doing the hard work in pursuit of the Greatest Good.

    This is NOT a good time to be complacent or cynical.

  • Jaime Gummer June 21, 2008 (2:08 pm)

    Not to diminish the excellent reporting done by the West Seattle bloggers, but the coverage of this story seems to lack dimension for what is a more complex issue. What is telegraphing through is a “sky is falling” warning that not only is the County poised to cut law enforcement budgets but it is talking about building expensive new prisons as opposed to making a smarter choice (says Rahr) to simply annex an existing facility in Kent. I assume the County budget cuts are across the board due to lost tax revenue from the slowdown in the economy. I’m also guessing that the County has failed to squirrel away any surplus budgets from previous budget years when coffers were full (if that’s even legal in King County). With all due respect to Sheriff Rahr, I need some more information before I’m ready to start dashing off letters to my legislators. There are too many questions to list here, but a few would be: Do law enforcement budget cuts necessarily mean less law enforcement? I mean, could law enforcement assets be more sensibly utilized (via computerization and other demographic tracking) to save budget? More officers and more cars do not always mean more results. That’s as foolish as suggesting that you can simply throw vast amounts of money at education and fix what ails it. Can more be done with sentencing so that the courts are not a revolving door? And with the prison, if adding to the Kent prison is such a no brainer, why is it even being considered? Who stands to gain as a result of either of those outcomes. Is the King County Sheriff’s Department feifdom being challenged? I feel as though this story needs a bit more fleshing out in its reporting. Sheriff Rahr may be absolutely right in her recommendations. But to the average independent thinker, I wish there were more info.

  • WSB June 21, 2008 (4:59 pm)

    Jaime, I agree there are good questions and there is much left to uncover about this. For our part, we try to at least scratch the surface by attending and reporting on some of these events so that people will know what their elected officials are saying – because otherwise it appears the legacy media, small and large, is opting not to do that (and if you analyze content, it’s not because something more significant is keeping them away). This was a major elected-official-faces-citizens meeting in our area of the county following up on the initial alarmsounding earlier this month. Best account of that alarmsounding is this one from the PI a couple weeks ago:

    Re: alternatives to these cuts … I just pulled a search to see if any of the wellknown local conservative voices have been offering suggestions, thinking certainly I’d find some at Sound Politics or somewhere similar. All I could find, so far, was Dori Monson suggesting the county gives too much to charity:

  • ValleyWatch July 8, 2008 (8:03 am)

    People I don’t think an email writing campaign should be your only solution when dealing with the likes of Ron Sims or any other King County “Big Decider” for that matter.

    You need to make your presence known and demonstrate your concerns, get the media involved. Resorting to just emails isn’t going to make the most impact in the least amount of time.

    Has the crime rate REALLY gone down or has certain type of crimes merely gone unreported due to poor police respone.

    I predict this “psuedo” gang unit will be cut, it was my notion from the beginning this was going to be a budget issue, and that they were only forming it because of public outcry.

  • WSB July 8, 2008 (8:13 am)

    The media is “involved,” btw. That would be us (this is a commercial news site with thousands of daily visitors) plus the citywide TV and radio stations and newspapers that have covered the issue. That aside, thanks for the suggestions to the activists who are concerned about this situation.

  • d July 10, 2008 (9:06 pm)

    ValleyWatch –

    Wow. I guess it’s good that Spokane has an ear to this. Maybe I’ll move there. ;)

    But, yes, you are right. The letter writing is just one avenue. If you know any Seattle media people, send ’em our way. We are well aware of their importance, believe me.

    And, thanks for listening in on our local issues.

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