GOLD BEACH, Ore. - Curry County Sheriff John Bishop says he will begin releasing prisoners from the county jail, cut deputy patrol hours and stop responding to less severe crimes because of shortage of staff and an overcrowded jail.
"We're not doing it all at once," Bishop said Tuesday. "We will cut the number of inmates in the jail because of my staff and the overcrowding of the jail."
Also, starting today, deputies will stop responding to less severe crimes in unincorporated areas of the county. Those include calls for barking dogs, misdemeanor mischief, illegal camping, noise complaints and disputes.
Brookings Police Chief Chris Wallace said residents living within Brookings city limits will not see a change in police response.
"It's not an issue in Brookings," Wallace said. "We are fully staffed and will still respond to most calls within a minute or two."
Still, Wallace was unsettled by the news of Bishop's plans.
"It's concerning for all of us in law enforcement; it's a matter of safety for everyone," he said.
The Brookings Police Depart will continue to honor an existing 'mutual aid" agreement between city, county and state law enforcement agencies.
"If something life-threatening is happening outside the city limits, we will go out there and help," Wallace said. "But you won't see us respond to routine county calls."
Bishop said he's having a hard time getting quality applicants to apply for jobs with the Sheriff's Department.
"It's not hard to understand why," he said. "Applicants know we can't assure them they'll have a job in a year, so why apply?"
County commissioners approved a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 by taking $350,000 from the vehicle replacement fund, $700,000 from the County Road fund and $450,000 from the county's working capital to keep the county operational until July 1, 2013. But after that, they don't expect to have enough in the county's general fund to keep operating.
For the last five years, the county has experienced a sharp drop in its share of federal timber revenues due to logging cutbacks on national forests. Congress has extended those payments several times, a little less money each year, but official are not counting on another extension anytime soon.
Josephine County this summer released dozens of inmates as part of the county's response to voter defeat of a law enforcement property tax levy in the May primary. That levy would have funded the sheriff's office, district attorney and juvenile justice program. It would have increased the county government property tax rate by $1.99 per $1,000 of assessed value. The rate now, 58 cents per $1,000, is the state's lowest.
Curry County's property tax to fund county government is a cent higher than Josephine's.
"Josephine County did it all at once. They paved the road and we're driving down it. We can definitely be there come June," Bishop said.
"There is a ton of horror stories there going on, criminals not being prosecuted, not arrested. Bad things happening to citizens and nothing getting done. I hope we never get there," he said.
Earlier this month, Josephine County decided to restore some jail beds there to accommodate 69 inmates, up from 30, hire a deputy and two monitoring technicians.
The action was part of a $400,000 package the county commissioners approved to bolster law enforcement for the current budget year. The money comes from what so far appears to be the final federal timber fund payment to the county.
On Tuesday, Bishop said the jail has a capacity of 50 inmates. On Tuesday morning, the jail population was 47andndash;48.
"We will probably release four to six, depending on how the matrix is. We have some people supposed to get out on Friday. We'll release them today, others a week or two early. The ones that are not a threat to society or anything," Bishop said.
"Some we can't release. They may have holds from California or Texas or somewhere like that waiting for extradition. We have others waiting for psychological evaluation. We can't let them go," Bishop said.
He said one is a driving under the influence arrest who hasn't been sentenced. He said about two-thirds of the inmates in the jail on Tuesday have not been sentenced.
"Some are misdemeanor probation violations we'll probably release. We're looking at it. We're trying to get the number down because of the staffing issue and to help relieve stress," Bishop said.
Judge Cynthia Beaman said in court Tuesday that she gets frustrated sending someone to jail one day and seeing them out the next.
"One of the unfortunate consequences of the county's financial situation is many county employees are looking for jobs elsewhere because they don't know how long they'll be employed here," Curry County District Attorney Everett Dial said Tuesday. "What's happening in the jail is the unfortunate collateral effect of the financial instability of the county."
Wallace said his department has been trying to help reduce the number of people jailed by citing and releasing suspects of misdemeanor crimes.
"We've been doing that for a while," Wallace said.
The current crisis is due to a combination of factors which have resulted in severe staffing shortages in the jail, Bishop said.
In a written statement released Tuesday to the media,Bishop said:
"Recent retirements and resignations by Corrections Deputies have left holes in the 24-hour shift schedule that can no longer be handled by overtime alone. While we are in this crisis we will have to divert Patrol Deputy Positions from road patrol duties, Probation Officers from Community Corrections and reassign them into the jail."
He said this reduction of patrol resources is going to mean fewer hours per day that a sheriff's deputy is on duty and less response by the deputies. It will also mean that people on parole will receive less supervision to make sure they are abiding by court orders.
"Currently, on average, there is one sheriff's deputy on patrol covering the 1,654 square miles of Curry County for 20 hours per day.Soon that may be cut in half," he wrote.
"The reason, there will be two to three fewer Patrol Deputies to put on the schedule. It is nowhere near enough manpower to protect and serve, but there it is," Bishop wrote.