WALLA WALLA -- One of the first salvos in the Walla Walla County budget debate was fired Wednesday night.
At what was supposed to be a meeting to introduce the Walla Walla Sheriff's Foundation, Sheriff John Turner instead unveiled his intention to ask for a $2 million increase in his budget.
"I can't in good conscience not ask for this," Turner told an audience gathered in the Walla Walla Regional Airport meeting room. "All of it goes for people, equipment and training."
County commissioners afterward disputed several points in Turner's presentation.
The sheriff's revelation came after Turner spent the better part of an hour delivering a hefty mix of statistics, warnings about rising crime and shortcomings in his office that he said can only be solved by increased funding. In comparing Walla Walla with Mason County, which has about the same population, Turner said the Mason County Sheriff's Office employs 46 deputies as opposed to only 24 in the Walla Walla office.
Turner noted the bulk of the sheriff's funds come from the county's current expense fund, which pays for most of the day-to-day operations. But he implied county commissioners are not budgeting those funds where they are most needed, which is for the sheriff's department.
"It all comes down to what are your priorities," he said.
Turner also took aim at the commissioners' conservative fiscal policy, which by resolution requires them to retain three months operating expenses in reserve.
Other jurisdictions, he said, hold far less in reserve. In addition the county reserves have in past years climbed to 30 percent, money Turner argued should be freed up for public safety.
"Almost a third of your tax dollars are not being spent," Turner said.
But county Commissioners Gregg Loney and Perry Dozier disputed Turner's assertions, saying a number of Turner's statements Wednesday were inaccurate or misleading.
In one instance, commissioners said it is invalid to use population alone to compare the size of the Walla Walla Sheriff's Office to that of Mason County, which has a similar number of residents.
"The same population may not represent the same revenues," Loney said, because property tax values can vary greatly between counties. Dozier said in order to obtain a true picture, people would have to compare each county's budget, especially the current expense fund.
Dozier said today the proposed increase, which Turner said is 35 percent, is actually about a 44 percent increase in the sheriff's budget, which last year was about $4.6 million. That was about 32 percent of the county's current expense fund. In addition, the department receives about $1.1 million from the Law and Justice Fund, which comes from a sales tax approved by voters.
Commissioners have received Turner's proposed budget and are going over it now, Dozier said, but the process is difficult because changes in how it was presented prevent a line-by-line comparison with last year. However, Dozier said commissioners are troubled by proposed large increases in salaries for the sheriff's administrative staff. In one instance, he said Turner's budget calls for a raise for Shanda Zessin, the head of the department's administrative positions, from about $63,000 per year to $77,000 per year.
Turner's comments about reserve funds were also inaccurate, Dozier said. The reserve funds have been built up over years and are being tapped now to cover budgetary shortfalls. "Every dollar is being used and that's why we have not had to raise property taxes," Dozier said. "Those tax dollars aren't being ratholed, they're being used."
"We look very closely at how we can fulfill the (budget) requests throughout the year," he said. "But we're not comfortable with pulling the reserves down because they're not being replenished."
At Wednesday's meeting, Loney also defended the commissioners' budget decisions.
"We are conservative, but there are reasons for that. Our (county's) financial health is one the top ones in Washington, and not spending all of our reserves is part of that."
Andy Porter can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8318.