Sheriff Downey: Law Enforcement Coverage Comes With a Price Tag

Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey, center, and 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg, right, talked about law enforcement staffing levels and possible ballot measures with the WCCSD Board of Directors and community members on Thursday, March 27. /Photo by Kristan Korns, Two Rivers Tribune

By KRISTAN KORNS, Two Rivers Tribune

Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey and 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg were in Willow Creek on Thursday, March 27, to let residents know that law enforcement coverage won’t be increasing before 2017.

Downey told the audience the economic downturn combined with an unexpectedly slow recovery had forced cuts in law enforcement coverage.

“When I became Sheriff three and a half years ago, I made a commitment to Willow Creek and this area to provide 24-hour coverage and we did that for about three years,” Downey said. “But I can’t operate a business in the red, which is what I’ve been doing for almost two years.”

Residents at the meeting said they were upset over recent home invasions, multiple armed robberies of downtown businesses, and a number of burglaries that happened in Willow Creek over the past few months.

Ed Duggan, local fishing guide and Chamber of Commerce member, said, “With this type of policing, it will be very difficult to entice businesses to locate within our community.”

Rick Stewart, owner of Buddy’s Auto Center, said he had video footage that clearly showed the faces of the people who burglarized his business, but Deputies never followed up.

“Even today, I don’t know if it’s been sent to the District Attorney,” Stewart said. “Do I have to call constantly with the case number?”

Chris Kramer, the manager of Ray’s Food Place in Willow Creek, said the same thing happened to him after armed robbers twice held his employees at gunpoint. “Your detective came out the next day and I haven’t seen him since.”

Downey said that the money just wasn’t there for more coverage. “I empathize with the rural areas and I wish there was more I could do, but the economy is just not coming back.”

Sundberg said, “We’ve heard loud and clear that people want public safety as a priority. We’ve tried to accomplish that in our budget, but there just isn’t the money there since the economic downturn.”

The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department currently has 13 Deputy Sheriff positions left unfilled, and five employees are also out with long-term illnesses or on disability.

“I think there’s a way to fix it,” Sundberg said. “I think if the 13 positions were filled, it would make a major difference in coverage.”

Sundberg proposed a one half percent sales tax to bring the sales tax rate in the County’s unincorporated areas up to the same level as Arcata and Eureka. The money would be used to increase patrols in the unincorporated parts of Humboldt County.

“No one likes taxes, but as I told Sheriff Downey, if I know where it’s going I don’t mind paying it,” Sundberg said, adding that it needs public support to make on the 2016 ballot.

“We need it to come from the community. It’s not cheap to put this on the ballot and we don’t have a lot of money,” he said.

Sundberg urged people to contact the Planning Commission with comments on the proposed sales tax, or to mail, email or call him with their comments and he would forward them.

Downey said he can guarantee that coverage will improve if the Sheriff’s Department’s vacant positions are filled.

“My intention is to restore that coverage,” Downey said, “and that comes with a price tag.”

If the proposed sales tax increase is put on the ballot for a vote in November 2016 and then passes by the necessary margin of votes, the public could see increased patrols in the County’s rural areas by early 2017.

For frightened, frustrated, and angry residents of Eastern Humboldt County, it could be a very long three years.

Rowley said, “The problem is in our community and we need community leadership to tackle the problem.”

Stewart said, “Where there’s no law there’s lawlessness; as Mark Rowley said, we’re going to have to do this ourselves.”

Several gun safety classes and gatherings are planned in Willow Creek and residents spoke about the one segment of the community that has already armed itself in order to protect their property: marijuana growers.

Duggan said, “I have a friend who has young children and there’s a marijuana grow in his neighborhood where the guy patrols on an ATV with a rifle.”

Diane Vigil-Brown said, “As a family that has small children, I have the same stories of neighbors growing and patrolling with assault rifles.”

Paul Abbott said he’s been shot at, harassed and told he couldn’t go down the road by armed men. “I think we should legalize it and get it out of here. Move it to the Central Valley.”

Two measures designed to help solve some of the problems associated with neighborhood marijuana grow operations are slated for the 2016 ballot in Humboldt County.

The first is a proposed tax on excess electrical usage that would target indoor grows, based on a measure successfully adopted in Arcata.

Sundberg said, “The Board of Supervisors contracted with PG&E to find out how many homes are above 600 percent of baseline usage. It turns out that’s around 3,000 homes in Humboldt County.”

The electrical over-usage tax in Arcata succeeded in driving 91 percent of the indoor grows out of that town within the first year. This put a large number of houses and apartments back on the market, dropped rental prices, and brought in active community members instead of houses filled with plants.

The second proposed marijuana ballot measure would use zoning and nuisance laws to restrict the number of plants that could be grown in residential neighborhoods.

Property owners with less than half of an acre would be limited to growing indoors in an area under 50 square feet.

Those with between a half acre and five acres could grow up to five outdoor plants, provided they are up to 1,000 square feet from bus stops, schools or sacred sites and set back from nearby houses.

Sundberg said, “This style of ordinance has been tested in court in Trinity County and won. We’d do these laws even if marijuana were legal. You don’t have pig farms right in the middle of neighborhoods because they smell; it’s a neighborhood impact issue.”

An audience member asked, “Who would enforce the ordinance if it passes?”

Sundberg said, “It’s a nuisance code law; it’ll be complaint-driven and enforced by code compliance teams.”

Community members crowded into the room didn’t seem overly-impressed by the possibility that an additional ordinance regulating the estimated 4,000 outdoor grows in Humboldt might be enforced by the County’s handful of unarmed code enforcers around three years from now.

Kerry Richardson said, “I moved to Willow Creek six years ago, built a house, and invested in the community, but now you have grows all throughout the subdivisions. People visiting have to smell the marijuana throughout the neighborhood and you can’t let the kids play outside.”

Vigil-Brown said, “What are we going to do between now and when we get a solution?”

There was no clear answer for her question.

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