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Focus on corrections.

Byline: The Register-Guard

If Lane County's public safety system were a bridge, its pillars would be crumbling, its guardrails missing and its roadbed so cracked that motorists would be in danger of plunging into the waters below.

Everywhere you look, the system is either failing or teetering on the brink. Crime rates are rising, while the resources needed to combat them are down. The county sheriff's office has lost half its sworn officers, and its jail is running at 45 percent of needed capacity. Because of overcrowding, 4,000 inmates will be released prematurely this year alone.

In a county with a raging methamphetamine epidemic, there is no longer a narcotics team. The sheriff's SWAT team is history. The county has no more resident deputies and no longer investigates property crimes.

Nearly a third of the prosecutors in the district attorney's office are gone, as are all but one of what was once an 11-member staff of criminal investigators. Citing staffing limitations and burgeoning caseloads, District Attorney Doug Harcleroad announced last week that his office will no longer prosecute nearly a hundred nonviolent misdemeanors, including forgery, credit card fraud, car break-ins and petty theft.

Lane County's youth services system, once a national model, is chronically short of staff, as well as treatment and detention capacity. The county's Department of Health and Human Services can't begin to keep pace with public safety demands for mental health or drug and alcohol treatment and has shuttered the county's psychiatric hospital. Parole and probation lack capacity and funding. Courts lack security and funding for vital drug diversion programs. The list goes on.

Lane County officials are considering a radical solution to these urgent problems - formation of a separate, countywide public safety district that would raise $30 million in new revenues. The money would pay for a range of public safety services, including new jail beds, expanded youth services, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health services and court improvements.

The needs are indisputable. But the likelihood of voters approving a new public safety district is a long shot in a county where property tax proposals get blasted like oversized skeet at every election.

If the county has any hope of success, it must avoid missteps as it crafts the proposal for the November 2006 ballot. Already there are signs that the county is in danger of straying off course.

To win the support of a tax-wary electorate, the county's proposal must be narrowly focused on meeting a clear and compelling need. Yet a draft of the proposal indicates the county is falling into the familiar trap of trying to do too much for too many agencies. Given its track record at the polls, the county should know that while voters distrust all tax proposals, they reject complex ones out of hand.

The county should strive for simplicity. Instead of providing a buffet of services, the district should meet a one or two clearly defined needs that resonate with voters. Corrections is an obvious choice, given the county's critical shortage of jail beds and the frustrations of communities and citizens with the revolving door at the county jail.

Instead of the current broad-based proposal, the county should consider putting a countywide corrections district on the ballot. A portion of new revenues should be used to add corrections capacity, while the rest could be used to pay for corrections programs that are currently supported by the county's general fund. That, in turn, would free up general funds that could be used to bolster public safety programs in the district attorney's office, health and human services, youth services and the courts.

As the county works to win the support of Eugene, Springfield and other cities for the proposed district in the coming months, it must also avoid offending its municipal partners. County officials should carefully gauge the potential impacts of moves such as Harcleroad's announcement of prosecution reductions. While the move had been contemplated for months and there's little reason to doubt its necessity, the timing antagonized Eugene officials, who estimate it would cost at least $1 million for the city to fill the prosecutorial void. Some officials also may wonder if it was timed to influence the city's deliberations this week on whether to amend the Metro Plan to allow formation of the public safety district.

The county's public safety problems are immense, and obstacles to overcoming them abound. If county officials hope to have success with their proposal, they must keep it simple and focused - and avoid stepping on the toes of their municipal dancing partners.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Editorials; County should simplify public safety proposal
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 15, 2005
Next Article:Advisory council to focus on food.

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