Editorial: Way Sweet Home cops are funded is criminal

Sweet Home’s Police Department has been struggling under the weight of inadequate funding since the 1990s, when three ballot measures forced its funding to come from outside of any permanent city tax rate.

Those measures were passed by Oregon citizens concerned about runaway spending in local governments. They were a good idea for most communities, but caused problems for us.

The Sweet Home Police Department is funded by a temporary operating levy brought before the voters every four years. Due to a fluke caused by Measures 47 and 50, passed by state voters in the late 1990s, Sweet Home cannot include funding for police in its permanent tax rate. That’s why our public safety levy is a temporary one and why we have to keep voting on it.

An effort to change the law to help Sweet Home, Linn County and Deschutes County, who have the same problem, was deep-sixed by voters in the rest of the state.

Since police funding is outside the city’s permanent tax rate, police funding, along with the library, is the first to be reduced to meet the Measure Five limitations on property tax rates.

Called compression, this amount was $237,000 for the Police Department this fiscal year. Had the department’s tax levy been rolled into the permanent rate as it should have been, law enforcement dollars would receive the same priority as the city’s other services.

On top of the effects of these three property tax measures in Sweet Home, our city suffered from negative property value growth two years ago, increasing the compression on the temporary levies.

The Linn Library League plans to go to voters soon to form a new district with a permanent rate that would rank higher in priority for funding than either the Sheriff’s Office’s and the local Police Department’s temporary levies.

Under the rules, all taxes dedicated to the two law enforcement levies would be reduced to zero before Measure Five compression would begin affecting the library levy or other general government levies at all.

All of this may seem complicated, but the end result isn’t hard to figure.

The Police Department has been unable to expand to meet rising demand during the last two years and the city has been forced to scramble and cut other services to make ends meet at the Police Department. The recent decision by the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District to save money by utilizing the Sheriff’s Department dispatch system means a $70,000 cut to SHPD, only aggravating the problem.

Citizens of Sweet Home are the ones paying the piper. The recently released FBI Uniform Crime Reports for 2004, which we reported last week, reveal that the city’s serious crime rate increased from 71.2 crimes per 1,000 population to 84.7 — a 1.4 percent increase. That’s 58 violent crimes (51 of them aggravated assaults) and 644 property crimes (459 of them thefts).

What’s particularly disturbing is that Sweet Home’s rate is rising while other larger Linn County cities — Lebanon and Albany — are falling. Then there’s the fact that the number of crimes has gone up so much in the last couple of years — in 2002 Sweet Home’s rate was 53.2 per 1,000.

Though Police Chief Bob Burford states firmly that he intends to keep Sweet Home the safest city in Linn County, it’s clear that’s easier said than done — particularly when Burford says that “things are worsening in 2005.”

This isn’t just a case of the chief angling for more funding like any other bureaucrat. Sweet Home’s police have been running on fumes for years. The city, the chief says, has three fewer officers than it did 21 years ago and twice the calls to police.

Police officers need some help. Right now, they respond to calls, but follow-up on those calls is often delayed.

A couple of officers explained they are able to get follow-up done, but the backlog of cases awaiting investigation is getting longer.

A couple of new officers would help get the follow-up done more quickly, solve more crimes and catch more crooks.

Some shifts during the week have just one officer on duty. Additional officers would provide ready backup on those shifts.

Sweet Home has several choices.

(1) It can leave things as they are and live with increased criminal activity. Yes, we’re simply stating that as an option. We’re not saying it is a viable one. It’s bad enough that our justice system has been so crippled by its own lack of funding that most arrestees are quickly returned to the streets. If there’s little threat of arrest at all, things will only get worse. Leaving things as they are is a bad choice.

(2) The city can cut other city services to pay for more police protection. Again, not a desirable choice. Someone’s got to run the city if we’re going to get the services taxpayers expect. The general city staff is already cut, but it may have to be cut further if other options don’t work out.

(3) The state constitution needs to change to make Sweet Home’s law enforcement levy a part of the permanent rate. Tried once, it would require a massive effort throughout the state to let most Oregonians it would have zero effect on them but correct a long-standing problem the same voters imposed on Sweet Home, Linn County and Deschutes County, the only three places where the correction actually passed in a previous attempt.

Passing higher levy for cops isn’t an option because of compression. It can’t be done. The Police Department could ask for $5 million instead of the roughly $1.2 million it currently receives, and it would get virtually the same as it gets now. The only hope in this area is new construction — economic development — but that brings its own cost in increased demand for services.

(4) The city can create a permanent police district, like Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District, which would give the district a permanent rate. A police district, or districts, may provide an answer.

There are other options — develop a volunteer or reserve police force to assist the full-time officers, contract with the county Sheriff’s Office for police services, apply for more grants.

The problem with reserves police officers is that they have to get extensive training at a police academy, a significant time commitment for candidates. While having some backup could be helpful for some paid patrol officers, volunteers and reserves need ongoing training and administration, which requires a time commitment from already overstretched paid patrol officers.

Clearly, this is a muddy problem with no one simple answer. But it’s a problem that Sweet Home is going to have to solve.

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