Sheriff says White Center storefront will NOT be cut

Sheriff Sue Rahr said this, to applause, at the budget crisis town hall meeting at the Steve Cox Memorial Park “log cabin” — she says the White Center Sheriff’s Office storefront fills “a critical need,” so she’s made an exception, though other storefronts are in jeopardy. More later; any other announcements, we’ll add them as the meeting goes. ADDED 9:04 PM: Meeting’s over, so we’ll be adding more details here, starting with this video clip of Sheriff Rahr after she was asked later in the meeting why she wasn’t going to cut White Center but was cutting other storefronts including Boulevard Park:

She added that none of the storefront buildings will be closed – just that they will not be staffed with a deputy, and those deputies will be transferred to openings elsewhere in the department. By the way, murdered Deputy Steve Cox‘s mom Joanne Cox was in the audience tonight, and given recognition – to warm applause from the 100 or so attendees – at the start of the meeting. UPDATE: The rest of the story — click ahead to read what else happened:

The King County Sheriff’s Office veteran who works with the media, Sgt. John Urquhart, emceed the event, and along the way shared memories of patroling White Center years ago; he offered a personal memory of Deputy Cox, too, and called attention to other KCSO leaders in the room, including Deputy Cox’s successor, Deputy Jeff Hancock, whose name alone drew hearty applause from the crowd.

Sgt. Urquhart opened with a quick tutorial — no visuals — he called “Budget 101,” to shine a little light on the process, so attendees wouldn’t be confused when they heard terminology such as “general fund” — that refers to the section of the county’s $4 billion-plus budget from which the criminal-justice funding is drawn.

The county executive comes up with a budget, sends it to the council, and then hearings, reviews, and votes ensue. For next year, the county general fund is $93 million short of what’s needed “for the same level of service as this year,” Sgt. Urquhart explained. Once the executive draws up a budget, county councilmembers can “leave it as it is, change it here and there, significantly change it, or blow it up and come up with a new budget,” he added. “They are working on one or more of these possibilities right now.”

KCSO, for example, gets half its budget from the general fund, half from the agencies that use its services, from Metro Transit to the Muckleshoot Tribe. Since the general fund is what’s being cut here, that means the non-city services are the ones where the ax will fall – areas such as White Center, the areas where 250,000 of King County’s 1.8 million people live.

Each of the four criminal-justice leaders on the panel got a chance to make a speech of sorts, before audience questions were fielded. Perhaps the most eye-opening of those came from King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Bruce Hilyer, who not only listed programs he says he doesn’t want to have to get rid of, but also expressed objection to the recently announced deal for most of county government — including the courts — to shut down on certain days to save money:

When prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg took his turn, he talked about his White Center roots and about the generalities of the situation, rather than dwelling on specifics in his office (though he had noted he already was down 20 deputy prosecutors):

Sheriff Rahr herself, of course, did summarize the cut she’s made, and is facing. She said she cut 21 positions this year, and expects to have to cut 79 more — including 29 detectives and 24 deputies. The sheriff called it a “HUGE cut.”

But throughout every speech and remark made tonight by the panelists, there was a current of disbelief – as if they still can’t believe they may have to slash their staffs and services. Sheriff Rahr said she’s discussed the situation with others who certainly expressed disbelief of their own: “I met today with the sheriffs of Pierce and Kitsap counties for lunch, and told them about (these numbers). They kept saying, that can’t POSSIBLY be right.”

You have probably heard some of the specifics, such as the $10,000 cutoff for how big a “property crime” has to be before it will be actively investigated beyond report-taking. We hadn’t heard some other specifics the sheriff detailed, such as “no longer (doing) individual oversight of pawn shops” and the closure of the “centralized drug investigation unit” which investigated drug trafficking. She says the drug investigations will now be done only at a very local level — say, you think your neighbor is dealing drugs.

No gambling investigations, no vice unit … her list went on, even: “Our specialized domestic violence unit is going to be decimated; we will send three detectives back out to the precincts, to handle those (domestic violence) cases like any other.”

As for King County District Court, for whom Chief Presiding Judge Barbara Linde spoke, she described it as “we handle the little stuff” — but often that “little stuff” has a big effect on lives.

After the four leaders had spoken for around half an hour, audience members got a chance to ask questions and make comments. Criticism of County Executive Ron Sims was a recurrent theme; the leaders had made it clear they didn’t feel the budget was being “prioritized” properly in the way they were ordered to make cuts, apparently, or so they suggest, without consultation about options and possibilities.

What about those KCSO raises and their effect on the budget? one man asked. Sgt. Urquhart didn’t duck the issue, saying the overall package would be close to 6.5 percent a year for the next five years. The sheriff then picked up the discussion: “I’m very proud of my deputies — I think they deserve what they get paid and then some, though I also have to recognize, they are part of 14,000 workers in county government that get generous benefits” — including fully paid health insurance for employees and dependents, it was indicated, with the implication that some cost savings might have been found there (an audience show of hands was requested, to see how many people had a similar deal, and no one raised their hands but a county worker).

Another audience member was upset no county councilmembers attended the hearing, and also voiced displeasure with reports that the county was spending an eight-digit sum to fix computer problems, instead of perhaps applying some of that money to the shortfall that’s apparently about to slash criminal-justice services.

As the old infomercial pitch went: “But wait, there’s more” — tens of millions of dollars in cuts expected to be needed in each of the next two years.

When yet another audience member started to gripe about Executive Sims, it was pointed out by the panel that part of the problem is beyond his and their control — the pot of money accessible by the county is constrained, with property tax increases capped, sales-tax revenues sliding; as Satterberg put it, “Our revenue sources need to be looked at carefully — but so do our spending priorities.”

There was a bright spot — federal grants that are being pursued to make sure some services are supported. In response to an audience question about such grants, Sheriff Rahr noted her office has brought in $35 million worth, and they are covering services such as auto-theft and cold-case invsetigations. “We are actively pursuing (those) — I have a fulltime staff person who does nothing more than manage grants.”

Satterberg said he had obtained a grant for a car-theft prosecutor, and that particular crime is “down 55 percent in the last three years.”

Inevitably, the question of future White Center annexation arose as well. “Annexation is actually a money loser for the county,” the sheriff said — less turf to cover, but jobs go away, and so does revenue.

In closing, Judge Hilyer reminded the crowd, “This is a very timely meeting — everything we are talking about for 2009 will be decided in the next three weeks. If you want to get involved, you have to get involved now — the County Council will be voting by the Monday before Thanksgiving. Your input right now is critical over the next two weeks, so if you have strong feelings, now’s the time to speak up.”

It was also stressed that the programs work together as a web, “not human services vs. criminal justice, but the whole service to the community.” And it’s a matter of “a healthy and progressive system,” Satterberg interjected, “one that uses the courts to access services (for offenders) … We’ve proven to ourselves that you CAN force people to change. We’re losing that now, losing our effective intervention point. All of us have spent our careers building this — I don’t want to let go of it without at least a bit of a fight.”

Toward the end of the public-comment period, one man lamented that he felt he was getting the short end of the stick, as a resident of an unincorporated area, but earlier, a meeting attendee from Burien had reminded the crowd that the cuts won’t just affect people who live outside municipal boundaries:

Over and over again, the four criminal-justice leaders on the panel urged attendees to let King County Council members — all of them, none of whom appeared to be in attendance, though Sheriff Rahr noted pointedly “they were all invited” — know how they feel about the potential budget cuts. Contact info is all on the county website.

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One Response to “Sheriff says White Center storefront will NOT be cut”

  1. Here is the link where people can submit testimony about the budget on-line
    Comments submitted through this link become part of the official public record.