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Oregon Sheriff Places Own Head on the Chopping Block for Budget Cuts

by Kevin Bliss

Harney County, Oregon expects an $800,000 budget shortfall in the next fiscal year. Nonunion employees and elected officials in the county are already being furloughed 10 hours a month to help make up existing shortfalls, the county jail fails to meet state law standards, and there are insufficient funds to support search and rescue missions or law enforcement services.

Sheriff Dave Ward recently announced that the only alternative is to cut positions, which he started by eliminating himself.

Ward was sheriff in 2016 when Ammon Bundy and his followers conducted an armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 41 days. Ward’s handling of the situation led one community to erect signs that read, “Dave Ward for President.”

Yet in April 2019, the sheriff announced his plan to resign at the end of the year in a letter sent to the Burns Times-Herald. He said he was concerned the lack of funding was hurting law enforcement and creating legal risks at the jail.

“I am no longer willing to accept the civil liability associated with the failure to appropriately fund/staff our jail, search and rescue, or law-enforcement services to our community. These are not frivolous expenditures, they are duties and responsibilities of the sheriff, mandated by law,” he wrote.

The Harney County jail fails to meet standards required by Oregon law and has been understaffed for years. A lawsuit was filed by jail prisoner Mac Runnels in August 2019, citing 24-hour lockdowns without access to outside recreation, no access to a law library and no staff nurse to provide medical care.

Harney is not the only county in Oregon facing budget shortfalls. Counties such as Jefferson and Waco have unsuccessfully attempted to supplement their budgets with public safety levies, and Josephine County approved such levies after several years of trying.

Sheriff Ward suggested that the next logical step to correct the budget was to begin eliminating positions.

“I am not willing to cut services to the citizens of this community, nor am I willing to continue operating a jail that is not funded to meet the minimum standards required,” he stated. “If a person needs to be eliminated from the sheriff’s office, then I chose for that person to be me.”

He recommended that county officials appoint a deputy to replace him as sheriff, and not backfill the position in order to save funds. 

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Sources: opb.org, btimesherald.com