Staffing-wise, Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey is breathing a little easier these days.
The reason is largely due to Measure Z, the half-percent countywide sales tax approved by voters in 2014. Revenue from the tax, aimed at supporting public safety and essential services, has made it possible over the past year for the Sheriff’s Office to hire a significant number of new employees — on both the support staff side and the law enforcement side.
According to Public Information Officer Selena Zorrilla-Mendoza, there have been 29 Measure Z hires since June 2015, bringing the total full-time staff at the Sheriff’s Office to 235. Of the 29, she said 15 are law enforcement personnel that regularly go out into the field.
What that has meant for the Sheriff’s Office Garberville station is close to a doubling of its law enforcement manpower — from five deputy sheriffs assigned to the station a year ago to nine deputy sheriffs currently.
“They are making a difference the public may not always see,” Zorrilla-Mendoza commented.
She said the increase has reduced the need to ship deputies south from Eureka to provide assistance. She said it has also resulted in more arrests of suspects on a most wanted list that the Sheriff’s Office posts online. Finally, she said deputies now have more time for good old-fashioned police work. “They’re able to conduct more follow-up. It gives them the opportunity to be active instead of just reactive.”
Downey, in a recent interview, did not disagree. But he did point out that the increased hiring figures are somewhat misleading since a number of the deputies don’t live in the Garberville-Redway area but instead commute from Fortuna.
That’s a good thing from Downey’s point of view since more centrally-located deputies can be sent elsewhere faster should the need arise — such as in times of a “special enforcement” situation.
“So even though the numbers are firm they can be fluid as well. The numbers can be elusive,” Downey cautioned.
Nonetheless, he said things are clearly better than they were two years ago, when his law enforcement staff countywide was stretched very thin indeed.
“If there was a shortage somewhere in the county we’d pull ’em [from places like Southern Humboldt] and send them elsewhere,” Downey said, explaining that doing so left the area where deputies were pulled from vulnerable.
“2014 was a low point. We were pretty bare bones in 2014,” Downey remarked.
Things didn’t begin to change until the passage of Measure Z, he added.
“The turnaround [has been due] mainly to Measure Z. It’s given us the ability to go aggressively out and [hire] additional personnel at an accelerated rate.”
As for the future, Downey said he’s hoping to create even more deputy sheriff positions by utilizing money from the county’s general fund. “We’re looking to hire five or six more deputies. That will beef up things countywide. It will also affect Garberville and Redway,” Downey added.
Factoring in deputy sheriffs who have already been hired but are not yet on the streets because they are attending police academy, Downey said: “We’re looking at potentially nine more [law enforcement] personnel in the next two to six months.”
Given that the Sheriff’s Office is in line to receive more Measure Z money in the fiscal year that begins July 1 — the Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Measure Z Expenditures makes funding recommendations, which then must be approved by the Board of Supervisors — the number of deputies could grow even further.
Beyond the $5.3 million in Measure Z funds already dedicated to next year’s budget for public safety services provided by the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office and the Probation Department, the Board of Supervisors has proposed $6.5 million in additional spending “for projects that will protect our community,” as the county put it in a press release.
The proposals are contained in the county’s proposed budget, which the board will vote on at their June 7 meeting. They include nearly $1 million that would go to the Sheriff’s Office for seven additional staff — four deputy sheriffs, a correctional officer, a community services officer and an animal control officer.
Downey said “the new opportunity for Measure Z money” could result in the hiring of a deputy sheriff who would be stationed in Shelter Cove, along with three others who would be stationed in Orick, Bridgeville and Orleans.
Should all that occur, Downey said the Sheriff’s Office would still not be at the staffing levels that existed in the 1980s and 1990s. But it would be getting there.
He credited a combination of factors to the passage of Measure Z, including support from his office; the Humboldt County Deputy Sheriffs Organization, whose members include deputy sheriffs, probation officers, investigators in the District Attorney’s Office, deputy coroners and welfare fraud investigators; and the Board of Supervisors.
“All the supervisors were squarely behind it,” Downey recalled.
Downey also recalled something else: He had serious doubts about Measure Z’s chances.
“I was skeptical it would pass,” he confessed. “Ballot measures can be a crapshoot.” Particularly, he added, ones that ask voters “to increase the tax base on themselves.”