Monday, February 13, 2012

Sheriff Terry Thompson: A Plan to Improve Fairness and Eficiency in Weber County Sheriff's Office Contract Services

Entering into ethical city contracts that are reasonable, rational, sound, justifiable, consistent, legal, and transparent is the right thing to do

By: Terry Thompson,
Weber County Sheriff


Early in 2011, subsequent to my election as the new sheriff, I met with the Weber County Commission and the Weber County Attorney’s office in a cooperative effort to re-evaluate our existing city contracts. We had several concerns regarding the structure of the current city contracts, including the rationale and legalities of the contracts. We were also very concerned about the ethical responsibility to provide openness and transparency in county operations and negotiations.

We embarked on a detailed study and review of the Weber County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) budget, its abilities and the scope of its services. This included a review of the unincorporated areas of the county as well as the contractual relationships with the eight cities where the Sheriff’s Office provides contractual law enforcement services. This effort was in response to several factors. First, the legality regarding Weber County citizens who live in cities with municipal police departments, paying in part for county law enforcement services with minimal benefit from those services. Second, the county has recently experienced financial challenges, primarily due to economic factors that are out of our control. This has created a need to look carefully at the WCSO organization and operations. Third, each city contract is uniquely crafted and negotiated between the county and that city. There is concern among some contract city officials regarding the equity and fairness of one city’s contract when compared to another. Ultimately, my goal is to make whatever changes are needed to treat all taxpayers fairly while managing a more efficient and effective law enforcement agency.

We determined that the proper approach to find a reasonable solution was to bring all of the stake holders together to form a board to discuss and attempt to find a resolution. We met together researching and evaluating various criteria. Representatives of each contract city would continue to serve on this law enforcement services board in the future to provide on-going input between the Sheriff’s Office and the cities.

At the board’s initial meeting we developed the following objectives:

1) Identify ethical and equitable law enforcement contract services criteria across the board - services criteria that are reasonable, rational, sound, justifiable, consistent, and legal;

2) Develop flexible (buildable) services to meet the individual needs of each city;

3) Conduct open and transparent contracts for services among all cities;

4) Define rationale for the deputy unit cost.

After months of meetings with representatives from each city and many hundreds of hours of studies, analysis and discussion, several primary conclusions have emerged:
  • Fair and Equitable – All property tax payers pay a county property tax. That tax is divided up among several county departments to provide county-wide services to all residents of the county. Currently those taxpayers who live in cities that have their own police departments also help to fund the WCSO Law Enforcement Division. This is because they pay both a county tax and city tax. County (unincorporated) tax payers and those in one of our eight contract cities only pay for WCSO law enforcement services. In short, some taxpayers pay for two police departments – one they use frequently (their city PD) and another (the WCSO) that they use much less, – while other taxpayers pay only for WCSO law enforcement services which is their only police department. This is not equitable and probably not legal. Under state law, only those services that the WCSO provides to all residents should be paid for by all taxpayers. Patrol and detective services that are used primarily by only a portion of the county residents MUST be paid for by those county residents (unincorporated areas and cities that contract with the county) that are the primary consumers of those services.
  • Efficient and Effective – Over the last couple of years the WCSO has downsized through attrition by ten-percent (10%) – 41 positions! Every staff position, every program and every service is under constant scrutiny as to its cost and benefit. So far, the WCSO has been able to maintain, and in some aspects even increase its quality and volume of services, through these critical and on-going evaluations. This has helped to maintain public safety while becoming more fiscally responsible yet continuing to provide a premium service.
  • More local control – One of the concerns for cities who must choose between contracting for a municipal service (county or other) and/or employing that service themselves, is the issue of local control. Under the current precinct plan, commanders and deputies are assigned to a specific area and answer not only to the WCSO but also to the contracting city. This is similar to private business contracts in which contractors and employees answer to clients as well as to their employer. By shifting the financial burden for law enforcement services from the county as a whole to the contract cities, the contract cities should, and will, gain more control over how their money is spent.
Steps: Analysis – Proposal – Implementation
  1. Analysis of Budget – The current WCSO law enforcement annual budget amount is about $9.5 million. This amount funds all law enforcement operations to include patrol, detectives and other related and support services. This amount does not include jail, civil process and court operations which are county wide services. A detailed analysis report is available but in short, the communities that the WCSO serves (including contract cities) consume roughly half of the WCSO law enforcement services and resources (patrol and investigations primarily) while providing only a quarter of the funding. In relation to individual communities, the ratio varies with some communities paying a larger portion than others on a per taxpayer or per-capita basis. The objective of this reevaluation is to reapportion the costs so that those same communities pay roughly half of the law enforcement costs and that the per-capita amounts would be comparable from one community to the next.
  2. Proposal of Cost Formula -- Based on the recommendations made by contract city officials, a costing formula has been developed that is based on each community’s population and history of police calls. In this way each city is treated the same. This provides a basis for all contract negotiations and makes the process more objective and equitable when comparing one city to another. Each city must decide whether to contract with the WCSO or to make other arrangements by March 31, 2012 as all current contracts with the WCSO are re-negotiated each fiscal year.
  3. Implementation of Shift in Taxes – It would not make sense for the county to pass on more of the costs of WCSO law enforcement to contract cities and unincorporated communities, while maintaining the current tax rates and collecting the same amount of revenue from all county residents. As the burden of these costs is passed on to contract cities and unincorporated communities, the burden to the county and the general fund is lessened. Part of this proposal is that the contract cities and unincorporated county will be required to pay more for law enforcement services, and as a result the county will take less in property taxes from these cities and all county residents. This offset “tax shift” will mean that some taxpayers will see both an increase in local or city taxes and an offsetting decrease in county property taxes. On the other hand, other county taxpayers, since they live in cities that already have a city police department, will see a reduction in the county property tax and a net decrease in taxes overall. This cost formula will result in a “tax shift” to those who primarily benefit from the sheriff’s office law enforcement services making contracts fair, equitable, and legal.
  4. Evaluation of Law Enforcement Services – One of the hallmarks of our current sheriff’s office administration is that nothing is beyond scrutiny and everything is subject to a cost v. benefit analysis. Public money is at a premium and we want to do as much as possible with as few dollars as possible. These contracts are no exception. Under this proposal, contract law enforcement remains flexible and tailorable to the community’s desires and needs. Regular evaluation by WCSO officials, county officials, and contract city officials will be required to ensure that law enforcement services continue to be both efficient and effective.

The impact of these changes will be felt by every tax payer. Some will experience an overall reduction in taxes. Others will see a reduction in one area and a likely increase in another area with a potential increase in a city tax or municipal fund assessment. The coordination and cooperation of county and city officials means that the overall impact will be kept to a minimum for those who may have to pay a little more overall. The ultimate goal is that communities become more self-reliant and taxpayers only pay for those municipal services that they benefit from and not be taxed inequitably for services they do not receive.

Final Notes

Contracting with the Sheriff’s Office indemnifies a city from liability stemming from a law enforcement incident. Moreover, city insurance is lessened due to the indemnity for further cost savings to the city.

Doing the right thing for the right reasons is seldom the easy thing to do – entering into ethical city contracts that are reasonable, rational, sound, justifiable, consistent, legal, and transparent is the right thing to do.

Editor's Note. This article submission comes in response to Sunday's 2/12/12 Standard-Examiner story, wherein Mr. Schwebke reported that "Officials in eight Weber County cities have until March 31 to decide if they will pay more to the Weber County Sheriff's Office for police services or find an alternative."

Update 2/13/12 11:24 a.m.: The Standard also has Sheriff Thompson's above linked article posted to its SE-Live site, for the benefit of those who'd like to mosey on over and lodge a comment:
Don't let the cat get your tongues, O Gentle Ones.

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