Monday, October 14, 2002

Levy would beef up policing

Nelli Cole and her granddaughter Dominique
Russelman of rural Clatskanie remember
Robert McKay, who shot himself after McKay's
son Dean called 911 twice last year.
Photo by Roger Werth
Columbia County voters will a chance to triple the number of road deputies and guarantee that rural areas get 24-hour police coverage.

But they'll have to agree to higher property taxes.

In the Nov. 5 general election, the county is asking voters to approve a $14 million, five-year law levy to bolster law enforcement in the county.

The sheriff's staff could shrink if voters turn down the proposal, officials say.

Now, the department has only four deputies to patrol a largely rural county of 43,560 residents who generate about 15,000 calls for service a year. The patrol division clocked 2,500 hours of overtime last year, but the agency can't cover all calls, and investigations are held up because there are not enough deputies, Sheriff Phil Derby said.

"We had a guy who worked for 23 hours straight," Derby said.

"It's almost like those evil companies you read about — lay people off and pay others overtime because it's cheaper."

The proposed levy is much more ambitious than a $3.4 million, three-year levy Columbia County voters rejected in 1995, when a grand jury indictment for theft was pending against former Sheriff George Hulit. That vote was 48.4 percent in favor and 51.6 percent against.

If voters pass the new request, the county nearly could triple the number of regular patrol deputies to 12 and quadruple the number of patrol sergeants to four. Derby said he could provide 24-hour coverage. If the measure fails, he may lose some of the deputies funded by grants as those funds dry up.

Columbia County resident Dominique Russelman thinks that having more deputies in the county may have saved her friend and neighbor, Robert McKay, from shooting himself outside Clatskanie last year.

McKay's son Dean called 911 operators twice on April 11, 2001, to report that his father was suicidal. A deputy didn't become available until McKay pulled the trigger because the case was not classed as an emergency until he shot himself.

"When we needed them, they just weren't here," Russelman said.

On a staff of about 22 in the patrol division, the sheriff's department investigates crimes, searches for lost hunters and serves court papers such as subpoenas and eviction notices.

The sheriff's 2002 budget is $4.37 million, or about 12 percent of the county budget. Over half the sheriff's budget is spent running the county jail, and about $285,000 was spent on overtime for jail and road deputies, Derby said.

Passage of the levy would add $2.8 million a year to the sheriff's budget every year for five years. The levy would tax property at a rate of 88 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The owner of a $125,000 home would pay about $85 each year for five years, after adjustments for Measure 50 tax limitations.

Columbia County commissioners have pledged to use all the levy money to hire new employees, to maintain facilities and to provide supplies and equipment — not as an excuse to divert other county revenues from the sheriff's office.

Rainier resident Art LoGreco said he feels safe in Columbia County, and more money for police and jails won't make things safer.

"To make your community safe, they need to spend money on schools before they spend money on the sheriff's department," he said.

Still, LoGreco, who lives along Highway 30, said he will probably support the levy.

"It takes a lot of money to make a community safe. The money has to come from somewhere."

Sue Ban, owner of the Quincy Store near Clatskanie, said she hardly rarely sees a sheriff's patrol car. The previous owners were burglarized a few times, but so far she's been lucky she said.

She's ambivalent about the proposed new tax, fearing its impact on businesses and low-income residents. On the other hand, she wishes that patrol cars would drive around Quincy more often, "just passing by and making it more safe for children."

[Venice Buhain / The Daily News Online]