Walla Walla County, like local governments throughout Washington state, has more needs than revenue.
So it’s hardly a shock the budget discussions between the county commissioners and the various departments are, at times, tense.
That’s not necessarily bad if all involved understand their roles and their obligations to the public.
But last week’s budget talks between the three commissioners and Sheriff John Turner were not as productive as they could have been because the sheriff and his staff prodded the commissioners to help set priorities for the Sheriff’s Office.
Now in many organizations, whether in the private sector or in government, this might seem reasonable — or even prudent.
But county governments in Washington state are governed by laws and constitutional mandates established as far back as 1889, the year of statehood.
This model of government isn’t always easy for folks to accept, or even grasp, in the 21st century. Yet, until the laws and mandates are changed, this is how county government must run.
The Board of County Commissioners serves as a legislative body that approves ordinances and oversees the budget much like the state Legislature and federal Congress.
What is a bit different from other forms of government is that those who oversee various county offices — auditor, treasurer, clerk, assessor, prosecutor and sheriff — are elected directly by the people.
Turner and a member of his command staff pressed commissioners to offer their opinions on the performance and priorities of the Sheriff’s Office.
Turner told commissioners he wanted their help and guidance in developing the “financial strategy piece” to accomplish goals that would reduce liabilities and risks to the county.
The discussion was said to be uneasy as commissioners were reluctant to address the open-ended questions posed.
Finally, Commissioner Greg 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.”
Tompkins is on the mark.
If the commissioners were to set the Sheriff’s Office’s priorities it could be seen as a de facto pledge to fund those priorities. The commissioners’ task is to consider all the priorities of all the elected officials when allocating funds and approving the county’s annual budget.
As is required by state statutes, the sheriff needs to set the priorities for the Sheriff’s Office.