Hood River County Sheriff Matt English and his staff have been hosting a series of community meetings this spring for the public to learn about the department’s resources and responsibilities in light of budget cuts for 2018-19 and more severe cuts expected starting in 2019.
The next event will be May 31 at Odell Fire Department from 5:30-7:30 p.m., starting with an informal barbecue with free hot dogs and a chance to meet sheriff’s office personnel, followed by a presentation and question-and-answer session with English and his staff.
The community meetings will wrap up on June 7 at Port of Cascade Locks Pavilion with the same schedule.
The meetings have been lightly attended, and English is hoping more people will take advantage of the opportunity in Odell and in Cascade Locks. The May 24 gathering at Hood River Fire Hall drew a few members of the public, along with more than 20 sheriff’s office staff, county administrator Jeff Hecksel and other county officials, along with representatives of the Hood River Police Department. Among others, English spoke with school board chairman Chrissy Reitz and Lupe Vasquez, a long-time instructor for court-mandated remedial driving classes.
“We are trying to take these opportunities to give people an idea of what services we provide,” said English, now in his sixth year as sheriff. “I think it’s a pretty comprehensive set of services we provide that people don’t realize, and a lot of people don’t know what our current abilities and limitations are and what our identified needs are.”
Services include road, marine and forest patrols, parole and probation, courtroom security and animal control.
“We just want to answer every question they have, because we’re sure this (budget cuts) will bring up some uncertainties. And we want to inform people,” English said. “The main thing is, ‘Here’s where we’re actually at.’ A lot of people don’t realize it.”
The agency took cuts in the upcoming budge, “though thankfully not personnel,” English said, but it does face “significant capital and materials and services cuts, which will affect our ability to provide services. No more materials allotted and we’re still working under the same number of people.
“For several years, we’ve been taking a look at our programs and getting constituent feedback about what our needs are and this is really an opportunity for the public to come out, but it’s interactive. We want people to ask questions,” he said. “One of the things we’re talking about is ways to fund public safety now and into the future. This county has gown but public safety (funding) hasn’t grown with it.”
He referred in part to the high demand placed on Sheriff’s department services by the growing tourism and recreation draw that is the county and Columbia River Gorge.
“This trend will continue, there no indication it won’t, so what are our needs going forward?” is the question, English said.
English has submitted to the County Board of Commissioners a proposal to ask the public for a Local Option Levy to augment department funding. The Local Option has been used by the Hood River County School District for the past 10 years.
“In the current ability we’re behind the eight-ball; we’ve added three total positions since 1990 and only two of those are enforcement,” he said; the third is Deputy Joel Ives’ position as school resource officer.
“It makes it tough when we’ve got increasing call loads and increasing needs and increasing demands, in particular with recreational response. That’s something that is really a community need and we want to support the tourism economy, but to support that we’ve got to have the resources,” English said.
He said that after the taxing summer and fall of 2017-18 and the Eagle Creek fire, “what really shined in that situation, and we’ve been able to leverage that, is the partnerships and relationships in our region and our partners around the region and even the state. That’s something we can always lean on, but locally we did everything we could.”
He said his department expended $60,000 in overtime in two weeks during the Eagle Creek fire, “and our people were working non-stop, and we are fortunate they stepped up to the plate and were willing to do that, but when you don’t have the appropriate amount of resources, there is only so much you can do.”
Looking ahead to summer 2018, English said, “What we are looking at and identified as our needs is nothing outlandish, it’s really just to cover our shifts.”
A Local Option Levy would enhance not just patrol but also judicial security, which is mandated by the state, and parole and probation services including pre-trial release advice to the court, monitoring of people released from jail, and increased drug and alcohol treatment services.