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Law and order in Klamath County

Klamath County Sheriff Frank Skrah, center at table, talks about the importance of public safety at a packed Klamath County Budget Committee meeting May 29 in Klamath Falls, Ore.

Klamath County Sheriff Frank Skrah, center at table, talks about the importance of public safety at a packed Klamath County Budget Committee meeting May 29 in Klamath Falls, Ore. The Herald And News, Samantha Tipler Photo

The Klamath Falls Herald and News on why cash-strapped counties should make funding law enforcement a priority:

Having looked at what life in Klamath County might be like if law enforcement was cut beyond bare bones, the Klamath County Budget Committee decided Wednesday not to go there.

Good call.

Instead of a $1.4 million cut in the sheriff’s department, which includes patrols and operation of the county jail, the budget committee decided to maintain funding for the department at its present level in the proposed 2013-14 budget that takes effect July 1.

The committee, made up of the three county commissioners and three members of the public, added about $700,000 of general fund money and $700,000 in road funds for the sheriff’s department. That was on top of the $1 million in road funds already in the sheriff’s budget.

Sheriff Frank Skrah has repeatedly spoken about the need to at least maintain last year’s budget. The recent arrest of 51 people in Klamath County in a single roundup related to drug and firearms offenses undoubtedly added to the impact.

The sheriff’s office is the primary law enforcement agency for the two-thirds or so of the county population (65,912) who don’t live in towns with police departments. The far-flung “Operation Trojan Horse” arrests that included almost all local and state law enforcement agencies made the point of the potential risk to counties that don’t have adequate law enforcement. They might as well run up the white flag at the county borders for incoming criminals.

We also think it’s far better for the counties to make decisions about local law enforcement budgets than have state government do it for them, though surrendering to criminals shouldn’t be one of the options. The Oregon Legislature has a bill pending that would let the governor and political leaders of both parties in both houses of the Legislature — five people — impose an income tax surcharge on a county’s residents by declaring a public safety emergency. It also would require approval by the county commissioners, but not that of local voters.

House Bill 3453 hasn’t really started moving through the legislative processes yet, but interest in it was strengthened with the recent failure of public safety levies in Curry and Josephine counties.

The fact that such a bill exists at all may spur counties, including Klamath, to come up with an answer, rather than turn the issue over to the state. Klamath was one of eight counties put on a state watch list because of its budget problems.

It should be remembered, too, that while county sheriff departments are often seen as “rural” law enforcement agencies, some of the most heavily populated areas in the Klamath Falls urban area are outside the city limits, where the sheriff’s department is the principal law enforcement agency. Also included are heavily developed areas, such as portions of South Sixth Street and Washburn Way.

Efforts are under way to put a Klamath County public levy on the ballot in September, and a July 19 deadline was set by the Klamath County commissioners for them to receive 1,390 valid signatures to put it on the ballot. The number is what’s required to put a measure on the ballot without it being done by county commissioners, but the deadline for that is June 19, and commissioners agreed to allow more time.

A levy may provide a long-term answer, but a short-term response also is important. The budget committee provided one last week, and it was on target.

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