The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO) has added a total of three more deputies after county commissioners approved a sidebar request to the finalized budget earlier this fall, bringing the full staff to 66 compared to 63 last fiscal year, once all deputies are sworn in.
County commissioners denied Sheriff Brian Heino’s original request for seven additional deputies earlier this year, and only one deputy was initially added to the budget. But commissioners recently approved the sidebar request, which added two more.
The FCSO is slowly making progress to provide adequate staff to address public safety for the county’s growing population and a rise in crime, but Heino says the department still needs more. Between 2020 and 2021, the county saw a 5% rise in crime and dispatch is currently seeing 3,000 to 4,000 calls during the slow months.
Since there is no funding left within the county budget for more deputies, Heino is looking to alternatives to reroute money to the FCSO.
Earlier this fall, Heino says Flathead County and North Valley search and rescue (SAR) board members said they would likely be willing to sacrifice funding to support additional deputies.
“The board membership has said they are interested, and the next thing is to sit down and have clarity on where those funds would come from,” Heino said.
If the board decides to move forward, county commissioners would need to approve the decision.
Heino said he’s hoping to redirect around $40,000 to go toward funding for more deputy positions.
SAR funding would likely be cut in areas like equipment and operations, but Heino, who has previously served as the Flathead County search and rescue coordinator, acknowledges that things like fuel and training cannot be cut.
“It’s hard because when you look at it, search and rescue runs on a pretty modest budget and training has gotten more expensive,” Heino said.
“I want search and rescue to evaluate appropriately,” Heino added. “I want them to make a good decision about what they feel is best for them.”
While demand for SAR spiked during the height of the pandemic, Heino said this past summer returned to near average demand, despite the historic flooding in June that absorbed significant resources.
Heino said SAR calls were minimal this fall, but teams are ramping up training for the winter season. Officials with the Flathead Avalanche Center say the snowpack is unstable, and several avalanches have already been reported. No burials or accidents have been reported as of Dec. 12.
The FCSO will also continue applying for grants as another source of funding, but Heino said they are often hyper-specialized, and they must meet the criteria in order to receive them.
The department previously used grant funding for ICAC deputies, which are now included in the county budget, and they have also received COPS grants through the U.S. Department of Justice in the past.
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