Sheriff Brian Heino is sounding the alarm. Public safety is at risk in Flathead County; due to population increases and rolling retirements of cops fed up with the job, we are without sufficient resources to keep our county safe. The problem is real. The best policing activity is proactive in nature. Patrolling county roads as a show of force places both the public and the criminals on notice that law enforcement is available and keeping watch. No longer do we have the luxury of proactive patrolling. Instead, our sheriff’s deputies run call to call and simply can’t keep up with the volume of requests for assistance. Perhaps the best reflection of the seriousness of this issue was the choice for front-line deputies to show up to commissioner budget proceedings to ensure the commissioners understood the crisis level public safety situation we have in Flathead County.
In response to the sheriff’s budget requests, the county administrator and commissioners equivocated and expressed uncertainty about the county’s ability to fund the sheriff’s budget requests. Let’s not forget what the sheriff has asked for: five more deputies, two internet crimes against children positions, and two jail staff to accommodate the fifth judge position that will begin January 2023. The sheriff isn’t asking to add layers of administration or bureaucracy – he seeks only to add more boots on the ground to accommodate the incredible population growth our county has experienced. To reject or equivocate on these requests is unconscionable when the most important role of limited government is public safety. To bristle at the requests made by a competent leader reflects a fundamental misunderstanding by the commissioners of their obligation to Flathead County taxpayers. Commissioner budget decisions have a ripple effect. The sheriff is incapable of recruiting new staff to fill open positions, likely because the first thing good applicants ask about is the caliber of funding support the sheriff has from the commissioners’ office. In an era where “defunding police” is a catchphrase, law enforcement families pay close attention to the sheriff’s funding source. Many applicants now make employment decisions based upon the governing body’s perceived fiscal support of law enforcement.
To cry poverty all the while using taxpayer dollars to fund a $2 million remodel cost overage on the old CenturyTel building smacks of hypocrisy and misplaced priorities. Nothing good happens when people don’t feel safe. If the commissioners can’t find the dollars to support public safety, they should sell the CenturyTel building to fund law enforcement adequately.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney, former mayor of Kalispell and host of the Montana Values Podcast.
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