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Sheriff helps guide county's budget ax

Cuts may hurt, but cooperation improves public-safety picture

Bernie Giusto had a choice.

The Multnomah County sheriff faced potentially steep budget cuts as Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler proposed slashing $15 million from the county's $1.2 billion budget in the next fiscal year.

Giusto could have been uncooperative and refused to help, putting Wheeler in the position to make the cuts on his own and suffer some of the political consequences.

But he didn't. Instead, Giusto said he saw an opportunity. The cuts he worked with Wheeler to make will change the fundamental nature of the sheriff's office, withdrawing from regional partnerships and task forces to focus more closely on its core mission of running the county jails and policing the tiny portion of the county that is not in a city.

'You only have this kind of opportunity during times of tight budgets,' Giusto said Thursday just before Wheeler introduced his proposed budget. 'Otherwise, you don't have a good reason. The citizens won't go for it. But, now, this allows us to retrench, to refocus, and to build ourselves around the increasingly urbanized county we live in. This could ultimately be the best thing.'

The sheriff's office special investigations unit will go from five people to three. The agency will withdraw from the Joint Terrorism Task Force partnership with the FBI - something the city of Portland did two years ago.

It also will pull out of the Regional Organized Crime and Narcotics task force and the countywide child-abuse team. Its deputy assigned as a school-resource officer in Corbett will be reassigned. And it will no longer contribute a deputy to the Gresham-based Rockwood gang task force.

At the same time, Giusto agreed to discontinue bunking two inmates in one cell in 170 of the 200 cells at the downtown Multnomah County Justice Center. And he agreed to add 54 double-bunking beds at the Inverness jail in Northeast Portland.

Even with the city of Portland continuing to fund 57 jail beds, and even with a revived work-furlough program for some low-risk inmates, the result ultimately will be a net loss of 114 jail beds out of the county's 1,690.

Paying less for less crime

Wheeler said savings from the reduction in jail beds would help fund a work-release program and 30 residential-treatment beds dedicated primarily to fighting drug and alcohol addiction, which could drive down recidivism rates.

'In sum,' he wrote in a note accompanying his proposed budget, 'we will be paying less for a greater reduction in crime.'

Giusto also wants to have fewer deputies tied up serving civil papers instead of patrolling and responding to law-enforcement calls.

'This is going to look in some ways like a different agency,' said Larry Aab, sheriff's office director of business services.

For Wheeler, the cooperation comes at a good time. He talks about being less interested in short-term feel-good solutions that don't fix ongoing problems for the long term.

The net loss of jail beds comes as the county again began releasing inmates early because of overcrowding after a 92-day lull - the longest such period since 2003 - and still has no plan nor the money to open the 525-bed Wapato jail in North Portland.

Study might find solutions

As part of his proposed budget, Wheeler would fund a countywide public safety study to include Portland and Gresham police, the district attorney's office, parole and probation officers, and judges to make sure that there were consistent goals and priorities, an effort that might lead to ideas to fix a much-maligned justice system.

Funding for implementing some new ideas could come through a public-safety levy on the 2008 ballot.

'It's a good idea, as long as we have the right people looking at it,' Aab said. 'Public safety is very badly out of balance. If you had every jail bed open but not enough prosecutors, that doesn't help anybody. Or if every jail bed was open but there were not enough parole and probation officers, that doesn't help anybody. At its core it's an excellent idea.'

Wheeler also wants to spend $2.5 million finding a short-term use for Wapato while funneling the most energy toward opening it as an incarceration and treatment center for local inmates, as originally planned.

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