Law and justice ‘in trouble’

Proposed cutbacks to King County’s budget to make up for a nearly $70 million shortfall in 2009 will likely cause a ripple effect throughout the county if court services, sheriff deputies and prosecutors are reduced as proposed.

Proposed cutbacks to King County’s budget to make up for a nearly $70 million shortfall in 2009 will likely cause a ripple effect throughout the county if court services, sheriff deputies and prosecutors are reduced as proposed.

During a press conference last Thursday, Sheriff Sue Rahr, Superior Court Presiding Judge Bruce Hilyer, Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, and District Court Presiding Judge Barbara Linde talked about the cuts County Executive Ron Sims has asked them to make in their departments.

Each department is expected to cut 8.6 percent of their budgets, which will total about $33 million across seven criminal justice departments, due to a $68 million shortfall in the county’s overall 2009 budget.

“Never in my 29 years as a police officer have I seen a situation that so severely impacts our ability to deal with crime,” Rahr said.

Rahr may be forced to cut as many as 100 deputies and potentially scale back or eliminate investigation of most fraud, Internet, property and identity theft crimes where the loss is less than $10,000.

Satterberg described the county’s entire criminal justice system as one “that is in trouble.”

City officials in Maple Valley, which has a contract with the county to provide deputies for its 10-member police department, are cautiously optimistic about how this could impact the city, city manager Anthony Hemstad said.

“We’ve talked with the sheriff about this and do have concerns, but are confident that Maple Valley will remain one of the safer communities in the state,” Hemstad said. “According to FBI data, we have the third-lowest crime rate for cities over 10,000 population in Washington. We will have the same number of officers as before in Maple Valley.”

Of the proposed cuts, the one that would affect Maple Valley the most is what Hemstad described as cross-dispatching, “when additional officers are needed from other jurisdictions to provide support in relatively hazardous situations.”

“Officers today now flow between Maple Valley, Covington and unincorporated (areas of ) southeast King County if they are needed for backup,” Hemstad said. “If there are indeed substantial cuts to the manpower of (the Sheriff Department’s) Precinct Three, this may hinder some cross-dispatch support. We have a very good working relationship with the sheriff and our neighboring jurisdictions and will work to minimize the impacts of these county budget cuts if they come to pass.”

There are 135 patrol deputies based out of Precinct Three headquarters in Maple Valley. The precinct covers about 740 square miles, from Sammamish to the Muckleshoot Reservation, as well as unincorporated areas as far west as Federal Way.

The precinct includes several contract cities, one of which is Covington. There are about 250,000 people living within the precinct, according to the precinct commander, Dave Germani.

Maple Valley Police chief Michelle Bennett said it’s important to remember the statistics provided by the public safety department heads outlines the worst-case scenario.

“Citizens will enjoy the same level of service from Maple Valley officers,” Bennett said. “Additionally, if the prosecutor’s staff cuts filing on some felonies under a certain dollar amount, that may place additional work on our city prosecutor for the filing of charges. The final impact would come if the sheriff’s pffice has to cut back numbers or staffing in some of our specialty units, such as K-9 and SWAT, that we pay for on (an as-needed) basis. If there are fewer of them, service may be affected.”

There would also be large reductions in the prosecutor’s office, including as many as 30 deputy prosecutors losing their jobs, Satterberg said. There is already a hiring freeze in place, so new hires who were supposed to start this fall have been told they are in an indefinite holding pattern.

“The cuts will devastate the entire public safety system,” Satterberg said during Thursday’s press conference in Seattle. “We’re already feeling the pinch of being short-staffed. It’s our obligation to say we are in trouble.”

In response, Sims held a press conference shortly afterward, saying, “You now know what a $33 million cut looks like.”

Sims blamed the combination of the downturn in the state and national economies with the state and federally mandated required services the county must provide for the budget shortfall.

“King County has a fundamental financial challenge,” Sims said. “We’re going to work on a myriad of options to resolve this. Before this is resolved, I must first propose a balanced budget.”

Sims said he hopes to get help from state legislators in Olympia and that he plans to take his case to the public to explain the budget shortfall.

“None of us want damage to the public safety or public health (systems) so we’re focusing on those issues,” Sims said.

Meanwhile, Superior Court and District Court may have to get rid of what Hilyer and Linde described as effective programs that dealt with offenders with mental health issues, services for addicts that helped them into recovery rather than jail, and other optional discretionary services designed to reduce recidivism.

Linde said these programs help because “intervention works.”

In addition, thousands of Superior and District court cases will be redistributed among the municipal courts of the 37 cities in King County – primarily cases dealing with petty crime – as part of an effort to cut back the workload through prioritization.

The presiding judges, Satterberg and Rahr said they’re publicizing the issue to educate county residents so they in turn can voice their opinion to elected officials.

“That’s how the process works,” Hilyer said.

The blame wasn’t laid at the feet of Sims, but rather, the competing demands on resources that aren’t growing at the same pace as the cash that flows into county coffers.

“It’s an obvious structural problem,” Satterberg said. “We need to look at what we ask counties to do and how they fund that.”

County Councilman Larry Phillips, chairman of a council budget committee, said this budget shortfall could have been avoided had there been better planning earlier in the decade after a string of voter-approved, statewide initiatives started a squeeze on the county’s ability to collect taxes in recent years.

“This should never have happened,” Phillips said. “We have known since 2001 that King County was facing a formula for disaster with shrinking revenues and growing costs. Rather than following through with strategies to stabilize costs and shore up revenues, the executive declared in 2005 that the era of big-budget deficits was over. That pronouncement has jeopardized public safety funding.”

With property tax revenues capped at no more than a 1 percent annual increase, the county cut $137 million from its budget between 2002 and 2005.

Phillips said he began working in January with the county’s elected public safety officials, who called the press conference last Thursday, to discuss the potential negative impacts the looming budget cuts could create, given that criminal-justice services make up 71 percent of the county’s general-fund expenditures.

“The citizens of King County have shown a willingness to step up and protect the services important to them such as regional parks, human services and emergency medical services,” Phillips said. “What could be more pressing and basic than ensuring our communities are safe by adequately funding our criminal justice and public health systems?”

For those living in contract cities or unincorporated areas of the county, Rahr said there will be two levels of police service: A higher level for those living in cities with police departments, and a lower one for those who aren’t because of the cuts that will be made in the Sheriff Department.

“Our top priority is that when someone calls 9-1-1, they get a police officer and they get them quickly,” Rahr said. “I can’t guarantee that two or three years down the road.”

Staff writer Kris Hill can be reached at (425) 432-1209 (extension 5054) and