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Sheriff: budget cuts pushing public safety to ‘crisis point’

Law enforcement in areas of King County served by the Sheriff’s Office could be nearing a “crisis point,” King County Sheriff Sue Rahr told a public forum last week in North Bend.

“We can’t wait for the executive and council,” she told North Bend-area residents Monday, July 20, at the North Bend Public Library.

Rahr encouraged residents to advocate for more money for law enforcement during the county’s budget process, and raised the idea of a public safety levy.

Budget cuts have already affected the Sheriff’s Office ability to deliver services in rural and unincorporated areas, she said.

Due to budget cuts this year, 47 deputies had to be transferred from countywide patrol to the cities and transit authorities that contract for services with the Sheriff’s Office. A further 65 empty positions were not filled, and several specialized units had to be cut as well.

People living in unincorporated King County have to “bear a disproportionate share of the burden of budget cuts,” Rahr said.

Cuts came across King County government, which had to resolve a $93.4 million budget deficit. The county expects a $61 million budget deficit in 2010, which will mean further cuts. The 2009 general fund budget — which pays for the Sheriff’s Office and other services primarily through taxes on property and sales — is $628 million.

In 2008, the King County Sheriff’s Office served 341,000 residents in unincorporated King County and nearly 235,000 in contract cities. Those numbers are expected to fall in the next five years as cities annex unincorporated areas.

Law enforcement is not a high enough priority in King County government, Rahr said. “The way our government works in King County, it isn’t. It just isn’t.”

The county should consider a law enforcement levy and stop paying for things such as a foot ferry from Seattle to West Seattle and Vashon Island, she said.

The King County Ferry District raised $18 million from property taxes in 2009 to pay for that service and to study adding routes across Lake Washington.

Rahr pointed to a public safety levy in Fort Worth, Texas, as a possible example for King County to follow.

She encouraged residents to lobby the King County Council to preserve her office’s budget, noting the success of advocates for health and human services in lobbying the council.

“It’s clear that we can’t rely on the executive or the council to provide adequate funding,” Rahr said.

The county executive’s office is collecting budget requests from county departments, which it will use to draw up a 2010 budget proposal to submit to the county council. The council will review and vote on it in October.

Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, whose sprawling 3rd District includes Snoqualmie Valley, agreed with Rahr’s sentiment that the county is not focused on local services, especially in rural areas.

Rahr said she expects crime to rise in a couple years due to the budget cuts if criminals think they’re less likely to get caught.

Currently, her office is seeing a rise in property crimes likely due to the economic recession, she said.

She told residents interested in helping their own community to call 911 and ask to see a deputy.

“When you call 911, be very assertive, and if you want to see a deputy, say ‘I want to see a deputy’,” she said.

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