Tuesday, August 30, was a disheartening day in Flathead County. The county commissioners held a public hearing on the upcoming fiscal year’s budget. Present at the meeting was a gathering of the community, clad in blue, to show their support for law-enforcement. The group was diverse in political opinion and party affiliation, career background, and length of residency in the Flathead, but they were united in these opinions.
The funding for the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office is insufficient. The number of deputies and jail staff in Flathead County is insufficient. The level of public and deputy safety in Flathead County is grossly insufficient.
To be clear, the criticism was entirely blamed on the lack of funding that currently places Flathead County lowest in the state for deputy to citizen ratio. It was not directed at the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, which is doing a tremendous job against the unacceptable and unnecessary challenges they face.
What was the commissioners’ response to the comments made by those present, which included a former police chief of Kalispell, the presidents of both local search and rescue agencies, multiple individuals who retired from law enforcement in large metro areas, family members of the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office deputies, county employees and the sheriff?
To adopt the proposed budget and accuse some of those who spoke of lying. The sheriff requested, pleaded for approval of additional staff to meet the needs of the fastest growing county in the state of Montana, but what did the proposed budget get the community?
1. The permanent funding of two crimes against children’s deputies (positions that already existed, but the funding grant that paid for them had expired).
2. One patrol deputy, you read that right, ONE patrol deputy.
3. One detention/court officer (which was desperately needed).
So, ultimately, the community got one additional deputy. If you call to confirm this you will be given a very political response of “this isn’t true, we approved six!” They are counting the above as four new positions. The other two positions are “opportunities for the sheriff to request more deputies” – one in September and one in January 2023.
If you ask the commissioners, who all showed up to the meeting conspicuously wearing blue like the people who showed up to fight for adequate funding, they are all “very concerned about public safety” and “very pro law-enforcement.” Commissioners, action speaks louder than words and you’ve made yourselves loud and clear.
The community in Flathead County is in a terrible position. One of the commissioners is up for vote in November. If re-elected that individual will be in that seat for another six years, a total of three consecutive terms. I ask you, is this county in a better place than it was 12 years ago?
The three commissioners have spent their tenure doing the same thing – raising property taxes to the point of people struggling to pay them and to nearly the max allowed by state law. While looking at opportunities for other sources of revenue (i.e., a recreational marijuana tax) that could provide relief to property owners while still adding income to the county and saying, “I don’t know what we would spend it on.” Pretending the issues and population are the same as they were in 2010 is not working. It is time for new blood, new ideas, creative solutions and the good ol’ boys club to be over.
The issue is further complicated by the primary election that occurred this last June.
One candidate, who was my first choice, did not have the energy behind him to win. One candidate showed his political stripes when he chose to run on the primary ticket that does not align with any of his past political choices. We don’t need someone in the commissioner’s chair who is a politician before ever taking political office. Then we have the incumbent who had the name recognition but isn’t willing to adapt to the changing needs of our valley.
I do not write this to pick a fight with the current commissioners. I write this as a community member who sees a crisis brewing that will boil over. There are needs in every corner of our county, and those needs require money, and I am fully cognizant that there is only so much to go around. The difference in some of those areas being fully funded equates to inconvenience, or entertainment. The difference in fully funding our law enforcement could very well be the difference of life and death, for either a member of our community, or one of our deputies.
Community, we need new blood in the leadership. There has to be someone who can step up and fill these shoes. Someone with integrity and a love for the Flathead Valley we once had. It’s not too late!