$2 million boost to Sheriff's Office is unaffordable

A dramatic increase in funds from the county's current expense fund is simply not possible in the current economic climate.

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Walla Walla County Sheriff John Turner's request for a $2 million increase in his department's budget -- a 35 percent increase in the Sheriff's Office overall budget -- is unaffordable.

County government, like all local governments in Washington state, has had to keep spending down as the Great Recession has slowed tax revenue.

Walla Walla County commissioners, to their credit, have followed a fiscally conservative course over the years maintaining a healthy reserve fund. The commissioners' prudent budgeting has helped county government -- including the Sheriff's Office -- maintain services without additional taxes.

Turner, however, was critical of the commissioners' conservative approach to budgeting at a meeting Wednesday to introduce the Walla Walla Sheriff's Foundation. The Foundation is a new citizens' group that hopes to raise funds to support the Sheriff's Office.

Turner said commissioners do not have their priorities straight because they are not using more county funds where he believes they are needed most -- his department.

Turner was also critical of commissioners for maintaining a large reserve fund. The commissioners, by resolution, maintain a reserve fund with at least three months of operating expenses.

Commissioner Perry Dozier stands firm on the need for healthy reserves for tough times such as now.

"Every dollar is being used and that's why we have not had to raise property taxes," Dozier said in an interview, adding, "... we're not comfortable with pulling the reserves down because they're not being replenished."

If the sheriff's budget was boosted by $2 million from reserves, it would not be sustainable. Where would that extra $2 million come from next year and on into the future?

We understand why Turner wants more people, equipment and training. He and his staff are passionate about law enforcement and want to do a great job.

But, frankly, most local government agencies today should be happy if their budgets weren't cut.

The Sheriff's Office has a healthy budget. It gets $4.6 million from the county's current expense fund -- which accounts for about 32 percent of that fund -- and it takes in an additional $1.1 million from the Law and Justice Fund, which is generated from a local sales tax approved by voters.

Turner tried to make the case his department was underfunded by comparing Walla Walla County to Mason County. He said Mason County, with a population similar to Walla Walla County (about 60,000), has 46 deputies as compared to 24 for Walla Walla.

But the comparison is faulty. The city of Walla Walla accounts for well over half of the county's population. It has a police department with 42 officers. Mason County has only one city, Shelton, with a population of just over 8,000.

In the current economy, the Sheriff's Office will simply have to work with funding that's about the same as this year's budget.

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