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Sheriff Matt English talks with citizens at a budget workshop held last year.

The continued loss of staff at the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office, and the office’s inability to fill those vacant positions due to the county’s  ongoing financial crisis, has resulted in additional service reductions.

In July, the Sheriff’s Office lost 24-hour patrol coverage, and participation in the regional drug task force, MINT, ceased later that month due to the loss of the assigned detective to another agency, according to a press release. 
 
In October, patrol coverage was reduced from 20-hours to 12-hours per day.

“Implementing service reductions has been the most gut-wrenching decision I’ve had to make as sheriff. Not only has this been extremely difficult because of the impacts it has on the community, it has deeply affected our staff that have dedicated their lives to protect this county,” said Sheriff Matt English.

During the hours when the office doesn’t have coverage, deputies remain on call and will respond to emergent life-safety calls for service, said a press release. Calls not requiring immediate response will be handled by deputies when they are on duty. 

“We will respond. It may just take longer depending on when the report is received by our office,” said English. “Our partner agencies have agreed to respond to some emergencies to ensure life safety, if they have resources available to do so, and until such time as we can get deputies there.”

He added that, even though the office is making service reductions, the statutory responsibilities and mandates of the office of sheriff don’t go away.
“I’m not excused from fulfilling the sheriff’s duties to provide services like search and rescue, court security and prisoner transports, all which require deputies to perform,” he said.

During the first few months of the current fiscal year, English said, the office has expended over $40,000 in overtime to fulfill those mandates and provide the already reduced level of service they have been. “We have to be fiscally responsible with the dollars taxpayers have entrusted us with. Expending overtime at that rate can help fill short term gaps but this is a long-term problem and that model is not sustainable,” English said.
 
In addition to the monetary impacts, English said one of the major issues he had to address was a way to mitigate the stream of deputies applying with other agencies.

“We can’t continue to burn our staff to the ground working inordinate amounts of overtime. With agencies all over the region hiring and the instability of the county, there’s very little to keep our deputies here at this point. I have to make every effort possible to ensure we maintain some level of law enforcement protection to the 17,000 citizens that receive direct patrol services from our office in the 528 square miles outside of the city limits of Hood River,” he said.

Four deputies have submitted applications with other agencies; one has already been hired, and two are in later stages of hiring, according to a press release. In addition to those applying elsewhere, two more deputies have resigned; the agency also has a scheduled retirement occurring in early 2020, and a deputy is recovering from a serious injury sustained while on duty.
Of the few remaining positions, three are funded by outside entities with performance measures or service expectations attached and, as a result, employees in those three positions cannot be utilized for routine patrol operations.

“We currently have eight deputies to patrol the Hood River Valley and one assigned to fulfill our contract with the City of Cascade Locks”, said English. “With more staff set to leave, I am fearful things will get worse before they stabilize.”

The Sheriff’s Office has seen multiple staffing challenges during the last seven years, only operating with a fully functioning patrol staff for about 12 months during that period, according to a press release. Current levels are comparable to the staff the office employed in 1990 — Hood River County’s population has grown nearly 50 percent since that time, with an estimated county population of 25,310 in 2018, according to data from Portland State University’s Population Research Center.

At this point in time, the sheriff’s office is unable to fill deputy vacancies due to the county’s budget shortfalls, English said.

“The county is unable to ensure the vacated positions will not be cut on June 30, 2020, which is in addition to the fact that it takes a year from the time the Sheriff’s Office starts advertising until we have a deputy that is able to operate independently.

“Hood River County Commissioners have made it clear that county-run offices and departments must operate in a sustainable manner because financial resources are finite and there are no new long-term revenues available,” said a press release.
 
This staffing issue is not unique to the Sheriff’s Office: Countywide, departments are reducing services because county staff is having trouble filling vacant positions, despite the fact that they’re still included in the county’s General Fund budget.

“When we do interviews now, people are smart enough to ask the question because they know the county has financial problems: Is this position potentially going to be eliminated?” said County Administrator Jeff Hecksel to the Hood River County Board of Commissioners at a special July 1 work session. The county does disclose to applicants whether the position they’re applying for is on the potential list to be cut, “and if they take the position, then they accept that risk,” Hecksel said.

Since July, service levels in County Public Works, County Parks, Forestry’s Trail Program, the Juvenile Department and Community Development have all seen reductions due to declining resources and financial instability, partially due to the staffing issue, and partially due to departments stepping away from unsustainable practices, such as excessive overtime, that they’ve been using to avoid decreasing service levels.
 
The Hood River County Sheriff’s Office operates Hood River County’s 911 system, rural law enforcement patrol, criminal investigations, school resource program, parole and probation, search and rescue, marine patrol, off highway vehicle enforcement, forest patrol, county emergency management, animal control, civil division, concealed handgun licensing, and is a member of the NORCOR regional jail.

The Hood River County Board of Commissioners is currently in the process of reworking the Local Public Health and Safety Tax that failed on the May 2019 ballot into a local option levy that would specifically fund public safety services provided by the sheriff’s office.

While the details of the measure have yet to be decided, the commissioners plan to have the measure ready for either the November or May 2020 ballots. 

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