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Sheriff’s resignation in Utah County emblematic of deeper financial woes

July 10, 2018

If you’ve ever wondered what complete shock looks like on the face of either commissioners Bill Lee or Nathan Ivie, just look to last Tuesday’s Utah County Commission meeting.

In the last few minutes of the meeting, the time was turned over to the public, as is custom, for comments they wish to make to the commissioners.

Sheriff Jim Tracy took to the podium and went off on a fiery oration against the commissioners, accusing them of ignoring his requests for appropriate funding for the Utah County Jail and for, essentially, sweeping away his problem away from them. All of this is viewable on the County Commission’s YouTube channel.

“I’ve been requesting money or at least advice from the commission on how to proceed over the last couple months with numerous emails and I haven’t heard anything back,” he said Tuesday.

Tracy threatened that he would likely need to cut 15-20 personnel, close a housing pod of 128 beds at the jail, and send inmates back into the community, based on their risk to the community and risk to reoffend.

Tracy said the office has been sent to collections in part due to an inmate, who has not been named due to privacy laws, whose medical bills approximate to $1 million. This inmate is also in the country illegally, which raises its own bevy of issues.

And then came the bombshell.

“At this point in time, I’m also resigning as sheriff, effective Aug. 1,” Tracy said, with responses of astonishment and confusion painted on Ivie and Lee’s faces.

Whether the commissioners were as non-communicative with him as he alleges, we don’t know. Based on the aghast reaction, the commissioners likely felt their level of communication was appropriate.

The commissioners petitioned Tracy to meet with them privately, which, since the commission meeting Tuesday, has happened.

Ivie shared on his Facebook page that the commissioners “had a great meeting” with Tracy on Friday morning. Tracy agreed to move $453,000 within the sheriff’s budget to account for some of the medical bills. Another $600,000 will likely come out of county reserves to replenish the sheriff’s funds.

This situation is the textbook definition of a Band-Aid fix to a larger problem. The jail’s medical bills will, in about 30 days, be in the process of being paid off. The inmate, though undocumented, is in jail and his medical bills would not be covered by taxpayer money unless it absolutely had to. Due process and the judicial process must take place. It’s unfortunate that such expenses are going to someone who, as Ivie said, should have been deported long ago due to prior criminal behaviors. But the inmate is a flash in the pan to the greater problem.

But this illustrates a greater issue at large. For years, the Sheriff’s Office, which includes the Utah County Jail, has been overworked and underpaid. As of two years ago, every jail deputy was on mandatory overtime, according to Mike Forshee, then-undersheriff for the county. The true dilemma is there is not appropriate funding to maintain a viable law enforcement presence for Utah County’s foreseeable future.

Tracy’s resignation was symbolic. He was retiring effective Jan. 1, 2019, in the first place before Mike Smith takes the reins. This just moves his first day at the beach up by five months. But from our view, this was Tracy making a statement that he was fed up with his department’s gross funding problem, in his eyes, being kicked down the road.

There is a trend across the county, and even the state, of police officers leaving the force to take law enforcement positions either at better paying departments across the state, or even completely different career paths in the private sector. A myriad of explanations can be drawn: national atmosphere, job safety, pay, pension and benefits. Of those, a few are in control of our local elected officials.

Tracy, in part, got what he wanted. A temporary fix to a long-term problem, though his resignation is still effective Aug. 1.

But there needs to be a better resolution to this plaguing problem. Local law enforcement officers are leaving our community because our police departments and Sheriff’s Office can’t meet their needs. If we want better police officers, more has to be allocated to the departments — in this microcosmic case, the Sheriff’s Office. More needs to be done so the threat of cutting 20 officers isn’t a looming cloud over the Sheriff’s Office.

We won’t be the ones to suggest the means by which funding for easing the burdens of the local law enforcement is made. Whether that’s adjusting existing budgetary priorities, adjusting taxes or another way, we encourage our lawmakers, particularly the Utah County Commission, to allocate more funding to the Sheriff’s Office. We are aware that it already has the largest budget, as it should.

In an article published in May 2016, Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Cannon said there are more than 270 full-time enforcement and corrections deputies within the department. With the county growing as fast as it is, it isn’t a far cry to say more deputies will be needed in the future. To bring qualified law enforcement officers to Utah County, it must offer competitive compensation and benefits.

Tracy was an excellent sheriff and public servant, and we applaud his decades of service to this county. We hope that what has been learned from his surprise resignation is that a quick fix cannot solve the deep concerns afflicting our law enforcement and a permanent solution must be sought.

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