Budget impasse is beyond numbers
There is nothing new in budget battles between politicians. During budget-crunch seasons, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives trade punch lines and duel in demagoguery.
But what is striking in the current budget showdown between Multnomah County Commission Chairwoman Diane Linn and Sheriff Dan Noelle is the lack of common sense and the abandonment of public safety concerns.
Whether it is out of genuine concern of cost to taxpayers or simply budget-time scare tactics, Noelle has catapulted sheriff's department woes into the public eye by supporting the early release of criminals.
The sheriff's department has been mired in a management crisis for some time. Noelle, a former Portland Police Bureau public information officer, came to the sheriff's department with policeman guts and habits. Sadly, this old cop's ideas on incarceration have followed him to the budget table.
Left to his own devices, Noelle would have axed the Student Attendance Initiative Ñ a county-city partnership program designed to lower truancy. His reasoning is that this effort primarily benefits the school districts. Therefore, the $2.4 million funding for that program ought to be paid by the schools.
We shouldn't have to point out to the sheriff that public investments in treatment and education are the best use of the taxpayers' money when recidivism is taken into account. We have learned from several studies that merely warehousing criminals tends to make them an even greater danger to society upon their release Ñ especially in the absence of effective treatment programs for drug or alcohol problems.
Since 1991, the sheriff's department budget has grown by almost $36 million. That's a 65 percent increase, and even acknowledging that inflation accounts for a portion of the increase, it seems clear that simply throwing more money at the department will not resolve this budget problem.
The biggest issue rests in the number of available jail beds: Pressure for jail space comes primarily from a disparity in drug arrests. Multnomah County's drug arrests, according to a joint study by the Association for Portland Progress and Citizens' Crime Commission, are considerably higher than both Oregon and national averages. Proactively, it makes sense to work with other law enforcement agencies to enhance drug-treatment and drug-education programs.
Another idea that needs consideration is whether prison overcrowding can be alleviated by resorting to alternatives to prison sentences. It has worked in the juvenile justice system.
The overcrowding issue is one the next sheriff will have to contend with. I suggest voters pay close attention to candidates' qualifications and experiences when picking the next sheriff.
The current chasm between the county chair and Sheriff Noelle seems unbridgeable. That's because it is about values and philosophy rather than traditional budget analysis. Though the headlines label this a 'budget showdown,' at heart the issues between the two involve personal values and priorities.
I rest on the side of compromise. I hope they do, too.