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Sheriff admits he can’t do job

The article below recently appeared in the Ravalli Republic. While that newspaper slanted the piece towards a view supporting the Sheriff’s quest for more taxes on the people of Ravalli County, or cuts in other services, my take is different. First I give you theirs.

Ravalli County sheriff frustrated by commissioners, lack of budget support

May 18, 2014 11:00 am • By Perry Backus

Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman made his annual plea for help to the county commissioners Thursday. For years now, Hoffman has asked the commission for additional manpower in the form of new deputy sheriff positions to patrol the county. In the last decade, they have given him one.

On Thursday morning, Hoffman told commissioners that his deputies are dealing with significantly increased levels of criminal activity, including a marked increase in the level of violence. He brought numbers to back that up.

In 2013, his officers responded to 17,287 calls for service. That’s almost 4,000 calls more than the year before. They arrested 1,468 adults in 2013. That was 401 more than in 2012. Last year, the number of assaults and rapes were up, while burglary and theft numbers dropped. In 2013, there were two homicides in the county. So far this year, there have been as many.

Hoffman said his officers have already responded to twice or three times as many major incidents this year than what they saw in the same time period last year. “It is not unusual for them to be moving to the next major incident before the paperwork for the last one is completed,” Hoffman told the commission. “With our busiest months still ahead of us, we are on pace for a record-breaking year.”

Hoffman said it was becoming harder for his staff to stay on top of incidents as investigation caseloads continue to grow for crimes that used to occur in the valley only once in a while, but are now common occurrences. “Today, it should not be lost on you that we are dealing with life and death here,” Hoffman said. “You can no longer pass off my warnings as abstract concepts, or potential worst-case scenarios given for dramatic effect.”

Hoffman renewed his request for nine new deputies over the next five years. His preliminary budget request for the next fiscal year asked for an increase of about $400,000.

Hoffman also requested increases in the 911 budget to update old equipment and software he called critical to carrying out the day-to-day operation of the county’s emergency service communications. “Suffice it to say that the 911 phone system is outdated and no longer supported,” Hoffman said. “It is a system that will simply not work on updated computers, and we are stuck with failing computers until we are able to update the software. This places our entire communications system in a most precarious position,” he said. “You need to know that when this system fails, 911 will be out of business. These near future expenditures are not optional, they are mandatory.”

Hoffman took the commission to task for creating policies over the past three years that have “done nothing but impede my ability to direct the operations of the sheriff’s office. “You have created these policies in a vacuum, without ever speaking to the people who actually provide the fundamental, tangible services our taxpayers pay for. … In no other county that I am aware of, are other elected sheriffs subject to such suffocating layers of bureaucracy or the draconian policies that we are.”

While the members of the board who created those policies publicly talk about reducing the size of government, Hoffman said the result has been to “create a ponderous monster which even they cannot effectively keep up with. Commissioners, it is not your job to micromanage my office, and while I believe that our constituents agree with me, I think that is a matter worthy of good public policy debate.”

Hoffman said he understands Ravalli County is steeped in serious social problems, but his attention must remain on ensuring his deputies can do their job in a safe and professional manner.

“That is my focus, and it leaves no time for such things as Agenda 21, battles with the Forest Service, or the latest first-world drama taking place within the local Republican Central Committee,” he said. “I don’t care about politics, and I don’t care who sits on this board, as long as they are willing to work with me on the real-time problems we face in this county.”

The county’s budgeting process for the next fiscal year is still in its early stages, said Commission Chair Greg Chilcott. At this point, the county can’t be sure what its revenue will be for the upcoming year. With that said, Chilcott said there’s nothing on the horizon that would indicate there will be much improvement in the revenue stream.

In all the years that he’s served on the commission, Chilcott said the public safety budget has always been carefully considered. “I’ve never seen a request that’s been dismissed out of hand,” he said. “There is always a lot of discussion on how do we find the revenue to support new positions.”

I don’t doubt there is a lot of truth in what he said and in particular the need to upgrade the 911 system, but the sheriff needs to take a step back and understand the message, then his mandate.

The money isn’t there.

Certainly the easy answer for Chris Hoffman is to add full-time deputies. However, they are expensive with fully-loaded costs approaching $100,000 each. The supervisors are squeezed between the need to keep taxes down and the variety of services the county government expects to deliver. The sheriff must accept their balance of budgetary priorities and come up with alternatives.

Bitterroot posse patch 5xHoffman has turned a deaf ear to the people of the Bitterroot who are concerned about federal overreach in our county. “I don’t have the resources to even consider it”. Additional emergency preparation and planning are also out of the question. No, his department is falling further behind every year. “The County Commission leaves me no choice”.

Shifting to a neighborhood and community based model is a rather obvious solution, to me anyway. Volunteers trained and organized to encourage neighborhood watch and neighborhood posses could be a tremendous force multiplier with almost no costs at all. Better still, in emergencies, they are already in the neighborhood.

In serious disasters, the majority of the professional security staff are drawn to their own homes and neighborhoods. While some observers are critical of this phenomena, it is reality and a very easily understood human behavior. Contrast this to the Neighborhood Posse who is there, organized and connected right from the git-go.

Better still, they are highly motivated to assure the safety of their neighborhood and people therein.

Best of all, they know who belongs and who doesn’t – at a glance.

If your current trajectory has not worked and shows no sign of working, perhaps a change in direction is in order.