When citizens dial 9-1-1, they expect someone to answer - and quickly. Is there any government service more essential than maintaining an operating 9-1-1 system?
I can't imagine one. Yet, three Multnomah County commissioners - surely you can guess their names - have declined to fund 9-1-1 access for the county sheriff's office in the fiscal year that started July 1.
You may wonder if they are serious, and the answer is no. More on that later.
But first, consider other outrageous actions that Commissioners Lisa Naito, Maria Rojo de Steffey and Serena Cruz Walsh have taken in regard to the sheriff's budget. They also refused to pay for the sheriff's matrix-release unit, which is responsible for deciding who to let out of jail and who to retain pending trial.
Remember recent stories about people who were released from county jails early and almost immediately re-offended? Those incidents occurred despite the fact that there is a system in place to evaluate prisoners and only turn loose those who are thought to be of least risk. Now, imagine how many more crimes would be committed if no one is making that evaluation at all. When the sheriff runs out of jail space - which happens every week - the most dangerous offenders would be released alongside everyone else.
Again, the commissioners can't be serious about this? Can they?
JAIL BEDS WILL
You could take comfort in the fact that they aren't, but then you have to consider the alternative explanation: This is a backdoor method of forcing Sheriff Bernie Giusto to cut his budget in other areas.
Giusto recognizes the obvious. He cannot sever access to 9-1-1. And he can't use 'a Weegie Board or a divining rod' to decide who should stay in jail and who should be set free. That means he'll have to close 114 jail beds in January - the same ones the county reopened to great acclaim just eight months ago.
The revolving jail door will spin freely once again.
And the jail-bed reductions aren't the only hits the sheriff's office is taking. Naito, Cruz Walsh and Rojo de Steffey also are telling the sheriff he can't cooperate with local cities the way he has in the past year. County detectives who've been stationed at the Gresham Police Department must leave, or the city of Gresham must pay for their costs. It doesn't matter that having these detectives work closely with Gresham detectives has helped solve crimes - including recent homicides and major thefts.
It also doesn't matter that Gresham residents pay county taxes just like everyone else. The decision isn't about good public policy. It's about sticking it to Gresham - at least that's the way Giusto sees it. 'The county commissioners are back in the business of taking it out on East County.'
ALL THIS CAN BE
REVERSED IN JANUARY
Altogether, the three commissioners' 2006-07 budget is cutting the sheriff's office by $3.7 million. That's the biggest budget cut ever for the sheriff, and will mean fewer deputies, fewer jail beds and a more dangerous community. You don't have to be a tough-on-crime zealot to realize that Multnomah County needs more jail space - remember Wapato? - not less.
It borders on budget lunacy to even suggest, however cynically, that the county cut 9-1-1 access or the matrix unit. The animosities that separate the sheriff, the three Portland-based commissioners and East County have grown to the point where rational debate no longer seems possible. Citizens ought to be outraged, and they must insist that these poor decisions be reversed.
The best hope for reconsideration will arrive with incoming county Chairman Ted Wheeler in January. Wheeler and whoever is elected in November to replace Cruz Walsh must be prepared to change the budget midstream and begin to undo the damage. In the meantime, citizens who support a functioning law-enforcement and corrections system should begin lobbying Wheeler now.