Commissioners, sheriff discuss budget

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— Walla Walla County commissioners and Sheriff John Turner discussed the sheriff’s 2013 budget last week, but the meeting seemed to produce more questions than answers for both sides.

The morning session between commissioners, Turner and Shanda Zessin, chief administrative deputy of the Sheriff’s Office Administrative Services Division, ranged over a wide variety of issues. These included immediate one-time requests for funds, communications between the sheriff’s office and commissioners, how to reduce incarceration costs, courthouse security issues, vehicle costs and other issues.

At the start of the meeting, Turner asked Commissioners Perry Dozier, Jim Johnson and Greg Tompkins what the status was of four one-time requests for funding. The requests are for new uniforms, two office business machines, funding for a reserve deputy program and new rifles for deputies.

“Our most dire need right now is uniforms,” Turner said. The second is the two office business machines, the third priority is funding to rejuvenate the reserve deputy program and the fourth priority would be rifles, he said.

Dozier said commissioners are waiting to get information about other unanticipated costs before committing to providing those funds. One of those unforeseen expenses includes a replacement for an emergency generator for the County Jail that will cost about $32,000, Dozier said.

“We’re not saying ‘no’ to the one-times, but it’s just right now with what we’re (being) hit with, we need to make sure we can cover some of the necessities that we have and then address the one-times and move forward,” he told Turner

Turner asked for a timeline for when he might know, but Dozier said he couldn’t give a date at that time.

Tompkins asked Turner and Zessin to provide a cost for only the “class B” uniforms, which are the daily duty uniforms worn by deputies and correctional officers. Turner said that cost was broken out in information given to commissioners on the requests, but promised he would provide that information to Tompkins as requested.

Both Tompkins and Johnson said they had hoped to be able to decide on the requests, but other budget demands are interfering.

“Our intent was to make a decision on the one-times much sooner,” Johnson said. “And then every time we got to that point, something else plopped in ... So now we’re so close to (the times the budgets need to be turned in,) our thinking is let’s just get that and we’ll have as many pieces to the puzzle as we can get.”

Turner said he understood, but added any decision on the uniforms would be appreciated because “that is a dire need.”

Turner then talked about the strategic plan for his office. He said he wanted the commissioners’ help and guidance in developing the “financial strategy piece” to accomplish those goals that would reduce liabilities and risks to the county.

He then asked, “In regards to county law enforcement, as we build our budget, what do you view as our shortcomings, our liabilities and our biggest risks so we can address them?”

When commissioners didn’t answer immediately, Zessin then spoke.

“When we were talking about this, one of the things that we realize is that we see the inside of it so much, and, well, the sheriff gets out and gets to speak with folks and hears from a particular group,” she said. “But what do you hear from the constituency that would be a focus or maybe an area that we should try to work in more than another area or your own personal opinion from things that you’ve seen and known and had to deal with?

“An example would be having more deputies on patrol versus maybe more of a detective squad to deal with investigation. So, those types of things. I think that’s what we’re trying to get a feel from you,” she said.

Dozier answered that he really wasn’t prepared to answer such questions. “I mean if I would have had a list, I think that’s something we had asked prior to this meeting, we could have had some thought into this,” rather than “trying to pull ideas out real quick,” he said.

Turner said he was trying to “find some common ground” with commissioners because he had been “misinterpreted” as asking for $2 million more in his budget last year, saying “in fact, that wasn’t the case at all.”

But Tompkins said it was up to Turner and his staff to set priorities for their department, not the commissioners.

“Here’s my comment. I don’t know anything about law enforcement. My job is to manage the finances and the resources that are brought into the county. I mean I don’t go to Gordon’s (Heimbigner) office and say ‘Gordon, here’s what I think your priorities need to be in the Treasurer’s Office’ no more than I should be going into your office and saying ‘I think we need eight more patrol deputies and you need this, this and this’ because I don’t know that.

“All we can do is we know the Auditor’s Office has mandates by state law ... that we have to provide, and you have mandates and whatever your office allows. I’m not going to prioritize. I don’t know what the most important thing is. All I can do at the end of the day, and what we’ve done for 10 years, I just happen to be the longest one here, is figure out what revenue sources we have, where we have to allocate them, and then it’s up to your department to prioritize, figure out if it’s more important to have people on the roads and at what times, is it more important to shoot .45s instead of .40s, is it more important ... I can’t do that for you.”

Zessin said she didn’t think they were asking the commissioners to do that, but that what they wanted was a “collaborative conversation” with commissioners.

Commissioners told Turner and Zessin it would help if they had dollar figures from the Sheriff’s Office to help them decide.

“We want to work with you, but we have to get the numbers,” Johnson said.

Later in the discussion, Tompkins said that another budget issue will be the outcome of contract negotiations with the collective bargaining unit representing the Sheriff’s deputies. Depending on how that goes, he said, “that may not allow us to do anything” in regards to budget increases.

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