Polk County sheriff, district attorney stump for $3 million per year public safety levy

The Polk County Courthouse. (Courtesy of Janet Guzman/Polk County Itemizer-Observer)

It’s not election season, but the Polk County District Attorney and Sheriff are stumping for votes.

The two are on a miniature speaking tour to garner support from Polk County residents for a levy to keep paying for deputies, jail staff, attorneys and legal staff. One of their next stops is Salem City Council on Monday.

“We have a ton scheduled,” said Sheriff Mark Garton of the talks. “We’re going to every city council, fire district, Polk County Republicans, Polk County democratic groups … Yeah, it’s busy.”

The levy proposes to raise close to $3 million every year from 2019 to 2024. County officials say that amount is nearly identical to what was raised by the current levy, which passed in 2015 and is slated to sunset July 1, 2020.

By replacing the levy early, Polk County Commissioner Lyle Mordhorst said the hope is to secure jobs for law enforcement and deputy district attorneys. If the levy fails, he said they may go looking for other work.

“By getting this levy passed early we don’t have to worry about them finding other jobs,” said Mordhorst, appointed Polk County Commissioner in December.

District Attorney Aaron Felton and Garton rely heavily on the levy funds. Federal money to help offset the declining timber industry has itself dwindled in recent years, leaving budgetary holes for services.

Prior to the 2015 levy’s passage, Garton said the sheriff’s office could only staff seven patrolmen on a 10-hour shift to police a county of 88,000 people. He recalls it as a difficult time.

“We were very reactive. We were not proactive,” Garton said. He recounted a house that burned down during a domestic dispute and a man who died while officers were off-duty. “Quite honestly, it was hard,” he said.

Likewise, Felton said his office had to triage case work.

“I needed all hands on deck prosecuting cases. The ability to take deep dives on important cases, we just couldn’t do it,” he said. Added staff now have time to serve on task forces looking into sexual abuse and elder abuse, among other things, he said.

“That’s an investment in crime prevention I could never do without the levy,” he said.

After the 2015 levy’s passage, this new one is largely a “status quo” move, said County Administrator Greg Hansen. The Sheriff’s Office will keep paying 12 deputies hired for patrol and five people hired to work the jail. The District Attorney will also maintain three deputy district attorneys and two legal staff.

Garton said the new levy will help him hire one more deputy for patrol. He could also hire another by the third year of the levy, depending on the need, he said.

The Polk County officials mostly said they were optimistic voters would approve the levy, though voters did initially vote against it in 2013. Felton, elected district attorney in 2013 after first failing in 2008, joked he too “superstitious” to say.

“I’ve learned the hard way too many times,” he said. “All I know is Mark and I are working as hard as we can to talk to people about this and earn their support again.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.