Ore. sheriff resigns over strain of insufficient forces
Sheriff has presided over a department significantly eroded by funding cuts. Now, he has one deputy on duty at a time to patrol a county that is 100 miles
By Les Zaitz
CURRY COUNTY, Ore. — John Bishop, the burly sheriff of Curry County, listened closely to the warning from his doctor two months ago.
Facing unrelenting stress, Bishop's blood pressure had skyrocketed and other health issues developed.
"Are you going to keep this up?" the doctor asked. "You could die a young man."
Bishop, 52, decided that wasn't going to happen.
He has announced his resignation from a job he has held since 2008. In late September, he will leave the Curry County Sheriff's Office, based in Gold Beach on Oregon's southern coast. He is taking a job as executive director of the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association.
"I'm tired," Bishop said Monday. "I'm tired of fighting the fight. The stress has taken a toll on my body."
He has presided over a department significantly eroded by funding cuts as the county has lost federal payments. Now, he has one deputy on duty at a time to patrol a county that is 100 miles long — and there are hours when no deputy is on patrol.
Bishop's departure underscores the dilemma facing not only Curry County but other rural counties across Oregon. Federal payments meant to substitute for timber tax revenue have been dwindling in recent years, leaving counties with few options to make up the difference. Bishop had 16 patrol deputies when he started. He now has six.
In Curry County, voters have said nine times straight they won't raise their property taxes to better fund Bishop's agency. The last defeat was in November. County commissioners, by a recent split 2-1 vote, decided to try again, this time with a levy during a special September election to raise taxes to run the antiquated 50-bed jail.
Bishop said pushing for more resources is only part of the strain that worried his doctor. He worries about deputies out on patrol alone with little or no back-up. He worries about a thin jail staff.
He worries about citizens calling for help that have to be told to wait.
"You go to the grocery and somebody's always got a problem," Bishop said. "You can go to church and people are wanting to talk to you about this and that."
He knows he has company among other Oregon sheriffs, all managing anxiety growing out of inadequate forces.
"There are a lot of us emailing each other at three in the morning because we're up and we're thinking about what can we do," Bishop said.
Gary Bettencourt, the Gilliam County sheriff and president of the sheriffs' association, said the strain is apparent in the faces of sheriffs.
"You can just see the burn out, the wear and tear," Bettencourt said. "When we meet, they come exhausted."
He said sheriffs are mindful that their deputies often work alone and accept responsibility when something goes wrong.
"You tend to blame yourself when the reason he's the only one out there is he's the only one you can afford," Bettencourt said.
Bishop's office got apparent relief for the current budget year when county commissioners agreed to dip into the county road fund for money. The expanded budget afforded Bishop the chance to double his patrol ranks.
Filling those jobs isn't going to be easy because the extra money is a certainty only until next July. Bishop can't imagine trained police officers taking jobs that could evaporate in a few months.
Bishop is drafting a plan for county commissioners to appoint an interim sheriff soon. Bishop's term doesn't expire until 2016, but by law the appointee would have to face election, probably in November's general election.
Meantime, county voters will face yet another public safety levy in September. This time, the county is asking to raise taxes by 68 cents per $1,000 value to run the county jail. The measure would raise an estimated $1.6 million, allowing the jail staff to beef up.
But the county money now being used to pay for the jail wouldn't necessarily stay with the sheriff's office, according to Curry County Commissioner Susan Brown, current chair of the governing board.
"That money may have to be used elsewhere or put into reserves," Brown said.
She was the lone commissioner to oppose seeking an election. She said county officials don't yet understand what their constituents want.
"They've said 'no' so many times, we need to be out there finding out why," Brown said.
She expects September's levy to fail.
"We haven't done anything different to encourage a different result," she said.
She said county voters also are stung by criticism from the rest of the state about the county's low tax rate -- 59 cents per $1,000. She said they are tired of being told they are too cheap to pay for police.
"That just angers them," she said.
She said the tax figure ignores property owners' total tax burden in a county with 41 taxing district. Residents in Brookings, for instance, pay $10.52 in total taxes, including supporting a round-the-clock city police force.
"They're definitely paying their fair share," Brown said.
Meantime, state and county officials from around the state continue looking for a statewide solution to diminished rural policing. The last of four public safety summits is scheduled for July 22 in Pendleton. The goal is to propose to the 2015 Legislature ways to fix rural policing.
Bishop will play a key role in that work when he's with the sheriffs association. He's not optimistic.
"There is some more momentum and more attention to this issue because more counties are coming into this scenario," Bishop said. "You are going to have numerous counties in a financial bind.
Still, he said, he senses legislators generally seem reluctant to act. With more counties edging into financial trouble, they are "are finally going to have to address this."
Copyright 2014 The Oregonian