Ore. county cutting law enforcement to bare bones

A failed levy vote in an Oregon county is taking a toll: government workers facing dismissal, a pending prisoner release, and crimes such as misdemeanor domestic assault and shoplifting likely to go unprosecuted.

A day after Josephine County voters resoundingly turned thumbs down on a levy to plug a $12 million budget gap, the sheriff and district attorney began handing out pink slips Wednesday, cutting staff to levels probably not seen since the region was settled during the 1850s Gold Rush.

"We're going to wreck the train here and see how we can put it back in the future," Stephen Campbell, district attorney for the Southern Oregon county, told The Associated Press.

The sizeable budget gap was left by the expiration of a federal safety net for timber-reliant counties such as Josephine.

As a result of the cutbacks, the routine areas of law enforcement — drunken drivers, domestic abuse, shoplifting and car wrecks — will likely be where people see the loss of sheriff's patrols and prosecutors first.

Losing four of his nine prosecutors, Campbell is working out a list of which crimes he will be able to prosecute, and which he will not. Most misdemeanors will not be prosecuted. That includes minor assaults, such as from domestic disputes, and minor thefts. Domestic abuse rises to a felony if it is done in front of the kids. Resisting arrest will still be prosecuted, as will some drunken driving. But reckless driving, menacing, driving while suspended, probably not. Even some felonies won't go to court.

"The list is pretty long," Campbell said. "I have been telling the budget committee for years now that I can't carry out my mandate as it is. There is a segment of cases that are declared violations, which we don't prosecute, that are prosecuted in most counties of the state. That has already been happening. This is even worse."

With a population of 83,000, Josephine County is in the heart of Oregon timber country. It grew up first on gold, then on timber, which reached a peak in the 1980s, then collapsed with logging cutbacks on national forests in the 1990s to protect the northern spotted owl and salmon from extinction. The logging cutbacks reduced revenues for Josephine and other timber counties in the West. Many still see a return to logging as their best hope.

In 2000, Congress enacted a law that set up a safety net for timber-reliant counties like Josephine. That law expired last year. A one-year extension has a chance to pass Congress, but even if it does, it will only provide $4 million to Josephine County, not enough to make up for the loss of the levy.

With its failed vote on Tuesday, Josephine County was the first to try to compensate for the loss of the federal timber subsidies by raising property taxes. Neighboring Curry County is considering asking voters to approve a sales tax in the fall.

Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson handed out pink slips Wednesday to 70 deputies and civilian personnel, leaving him with just 28 after June 1. That will require releasing about 90 inmates from the jail in the coming weeks, leaving 30 people behind bars. Those being held are considered the greatest risk to the community.

There will be no more detectives, no more road deputies, and just one dispatcher. Contract deputies will still patrol the city of Cave Junction, federal lands and the Rogue River during the day, because they are funded by outside revenues. Gilbertson will be the only county lawman on call around the clock. For backup, he can call on the contract deputies during business hours, but otherwise will have to wait for a state trooper, which could take more than a half hour.

The Illinois Valley Safehouse Alliance logs about five incidents a week where sheriff's deputies are called to a domestic disturbance, and gets about 40 victims a month, said Grace Auzenne, a domestic violence advocate for the organization. With no one but the sheriff himself to call around the clock, no jail space to hold offenders, and no prosecution, the problem is sure to escalate, she said.

"All in all it's not looking good for rural areas," she said.