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June 29th, 2005 Angela Valdez | News Stories
 

BOSS HOG

Sheriff Bernie Giusto wants more of your money to lock up bad guys. Don't fall for it.

     
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Few local officials have been in the news more this year than Bernie Giusto. In dozens of newspaper and television reports, the Multnomah County sheriff has carpet-bombed citizens with a single message: Without more money for jails, he won't be able to keep us safe.

Time and time again, Giusto has spelled out the consequences of inaction.

On May 19, KOIN-TV news featured Giusto at a county budget meeting: "The crimes continue to be more and more serious," he said, in a plea for more funds. "If you haven't noticed, the green streets of Portland are turning into the mean streets of Portland." On June 7, he told the Portland Tribune that he would probably have to release probation and parole violators to make room for new offenders. "I'm looking for ways to make this work," he said, "but I'm running out of ideas."

Giusto's demands? He wants $2.6 million to open 114 beds at Inverness Jail, a facility in Northeast Portland that has been running at less than full capacity for more than a year.

Giusto's complaints have created an atmosphere of crisis in the county and heaped even more pressure on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, whose reputation has suffered from chronic in-fighting. In a May 21 editorial, The Oregonian portrayed Giusto as a beleaguered public servant operating under the yoke of "commissioners [who] don't understand how jails work."

Neverthless, on June 2, the board, citing coming cuts to county revenue, passed a budget that did not include the extra $2.6 million Giusto wanted.

Since then, Giusto and Commissioner Lonnie Roberts have been laying the groundwork for a public-safety levy that would hike property taxes to open more jail beds. Giusto has pledged his support.

"If we can make [the public] believe that we're out of options, it may certainly be something we'll ask them," he said in an interview with WW. "I'm happy to support it."

Here's the strange thing: While Giusto fans public anxieties, he actually has the resources he needs to open more jail beds-only he'd rather get more of the public's money than spend his own.

The sheriff's $84.5 million budget has more than enough cash to pay for all the jail beds Giusto says he needs, according to an analysis of his spending and conversations with jail and budget experts. Much of the problem lies in the amount of money he spends on overtime, more than any sheriff in recent memory.

The 54-year-old Giusto, an affable former state trooper with a weightlifter's chest, has enlisted the media in a crusade to convince the public that our safety depends on the county's ability to give him more money. But the swell of support for his message has obscured evidence that the issue is not so much a lack of funds as it is a lack of fiscal control. Internal strife on the board of county commissioners has further distracted from Giusto's spending.

"Absolutely he's fiscally irresponsible," says Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey. "He knows what the priority is, and he's not spending his money on it."

Giusto, a former Reynolds High School football star who spent his youth spreading manure on his stepdad's horse farm, says he never dreamed of becoming a cop. "I let life kind of take me," he says. Life took him from the state police-where he worked for several years as a bodyguard for then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt-to the Gresham City Council and, in 1996, to the appointed office of Gresham police chief. In 2002, he was elected to the post of Multnomah County sheriff, taking on responsibility for running the county's five jails and patrolling its 289 mostly unincorporated miles.

While the five-member board of commissioners must approve his budget every year, Giusto has final say over how the money gets spent. According to three commissioners, a former sheriff and several key observers, the sheriff has not managed his funds very well.

The clearest example is the amount of money he doles out in overtime for about 420 deputies who work at county jails. In the 2002 fiscal year, the year before he took office, the sheriff's office spent $3.28 million on overtime. In the fiscal year that ends July 1, Giusto will have spent more than $6 million. The almost $3 million difference would be more than enough to fund the beds at Inverness.

Giusto didn't blow his overtime budget because there was more work to do: In fact, the total number of beds in use at the county's five jails has gone down from about 1,850 in January 2003 to 1,579 today.

And he didn't spend the money because he had fewer employees, whose shifts he had to stretch. Although the number of full-time corrections deputies dipped the month after he took office, Giusto's staff in the jails has hovered around 420 for most of his tenure, according to Sheriff's Office records.

A number of sources within the county say the growth in overtime is a sign of bad management.

"Six million dollars in overtime is way too much," says Dan Noelle, who served as sheriff from 1995 to 2002. "It would lead me to look at some of the management controls that should be in place. Part of that is just being able to say, 'No.'"

Criticism of Giusto's overtime spending is widespread.

Every year, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk convenes a group of citizens to assess the state of local jails. The Corrections Grand Jury's 2004 report heavily criticized the sheriff's use of overtime. Citing millions of dollars in potential savings, they wrote, "We must find solutions to save money."

"I think the grand jury raised the issue, and I think it's something that needs to be addressed, or at least talked about," says John Bradley, special counsel to the district attorney.

Today, several deputies earn so much overtime that their annual take is almost double their base salaries. The highest overtime earner for the 2005 fiscal year was Sgt. Thomas McNeil, who made $56,349 in overtime on top of his salary of $67,868, for a total of $124,217 after more than 900 hours of extra work. The top 10 overtime earners raked in an average of $43,585 in overtime.

Overtime costs can have a serious impact on the county's pension obligations, since retirement income is typically based on the three most lucrative years of a deputy's career. For example, if a deputy has a salary of $50,000 and earns another $25,000 in overtime for three individual years, he can choose to have his retirement benefits calculated using the $75,000 total.

When challenged about his use of overtime, Giusto's response is calm but indirect.

"First of all," he says, "you need to understand that overtime is a management tool just like anything else. Overtime is not a bad word." Giusto defended himself last week during an interview on the third floor of the county building on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. At one point he dragged a 3-foot tall Bozo the clown punching doll by the nose into his office, saying, "This is how we feel aroud here."

Giusto says it's cheaper to use overtime than to hire full-time employees, though he never summoned the hard numbers to prove his point during the interview. He says much overtime stems from extra training he has required for deputies.

He agrees that some of his overtime spending is inefficient but explains that because of budget instability, he doesn't want to bring in new deputies if he'd have to lay them off a year later.

"If I could get a county commission to bring some stability in terms of their planning and budgeting," he says, "I'd be willing to talk about whether or not I could hire people so I wouldn't have overtime." He says he'll spend less on overtime next year.

Asked what he had done to curtail overtime, Giusto said he had focused on improving morale to cut down on sick days.

At the same time, he acknowledged that his office hasn't conducted a staffing study to determine the number of employees that are actually needed. Giusto says he hasn't had time to order the study until now.

"I've been sheriff for two years, you know?" he says. "Give me a break!"

Giusto relies on his friendly demeanor, rather than a command of facts and figures, to press his arguments. Sometimes his fatherly manner verges on condescension: At one point in the interview, he maintained that the reporter didn't understand, saying, "No, no.... Follow the bouncing ball."

The sheriff directed technical questions about overtime to his staff, who still could not produce the arithmetic showing how they save money by using overtime.

Commissioner Rojo de Steffey says the sheriff has resisted cuts to overtime and other realms of office because he's unwilling to let go of any slice of his kingdom.

"I think he doesn't want to stop doing anything he's doing," she says. "He knows jail beds is what plays to the community, so he's saying, 'Jail beds, jail beds, jail beds.' He's not willing to give anything up."

Giusto says the commissioners have no right to tell him how to spend his money.

"I'm elected. My boss is all the way out here," he says, sweeping his arm toward the windows. Of the commissioners who voted to cut his budget, he says, "I could run for their seats and knock them out. So they do their job, I do my job."

The sheriff's office's fiscal leadership has been questioned on other issues.

For many years, the sheriff's office has run internal services-like an office supply store, email system, information technology and payroll staff-that could be consolidated with countywide systems. The budget approved this month forces Giusto to work with a task force to find savings by eliminating duplicated programs, or, if he's lucky, forcing the county to quit charging him for services they provide that he can run on his own, such as fleet services.

His office has also been criticized for not taking better advantage of programs like electronic monitoring that free up jail beds without letting bad guys off the hook.

Giusto's own staff made a pricey error this year by leaving out $1.4 million in administrative services from the spending proposals they sent to the budget office. He blames the budget office for not catching his bad math.

"It was very poor work by them," he says, rapping the desk with his fist. "Write that down. Very poor work by them."

While some critics say Giusto is incapable of managing his budget, others point to his loyalty to the union that, by his admission, helped put him in office.

Giusto's campaign was relatively inexpensive. Of the $85,000 he raised, however, $40,000 came from the Multnomah County Corrections Deputies Association. Giusto's main opponent, then-Undersheriff Mel Hedgpeth, withdrew his name at the last minute. Giusto says he returned $10,000 he didn't need to the union.

Giusto explained the depth of his devotion to the union in a stump speech before the Corrections Deputies Association in 2002 (see "Gunning for the Union Vote," WW, Jan. 23, 2002).

"Let me tell you my priorities," he said. "Families, jobs, service to the public-in that order." He told the deputies gathered before him that he had no problem with 16-hour workdays, and he also promised to curtail the reach of Internal Affairs-which he has done by allowing sergeants to handle minor discipline issues with an oral reprimand rather than subjecting the offender to departmental investigation.

In his defense, Giusto says he has stood up to the union and carried out discipline that might be deemed unpopular.

Nonetheless, the sheriff still has the blessing of current union leaders.

"We have no complaints," said Deputies Association president Bob Miller. "He's been very good to us."

For Giusto, the sheriff's office was always viewed as a stepping stone. His political climb suffered a misstep last year, however, when it was revealed that he had heard in the 1980s about Neil Goldschmidt's rape of a teenage girl back in the 1970s and had kept it to himself. Giusto was not reappointed to the TriMet board of directors last year because of concerns about his connections to the former governor.

Should he choose to seek any other office, Giusto will likely be re-confronted with questions about what he knew, and why he, like many others, didn't act. He says he did nothing because the statute of limitations had passed.

"There was no responsibility on anybody's part to do anything," he says. "Do what? I wish you would tell me what I was supposed to do about it. Leak it to the press? That's not doing anything."

But far more relevant to his political future may be the fact that Giusto has been clamoring for more tax dollars for jail beds when the funds to open them sit at his disposal.

"The public needs to get the information about overtime in order to hold the sheriff accountable," says Multnomah County Commissioner Serena Cruz.

Undeterred, Giusto is considering running for office again in 2006.


The task of calling deputies to work overtime is referred to in the jails as "dialing for dollars."

Because of the cap on county property taxes passed in the 1990s, a serial levy for jails would cut into other special taxes for children, the library and parks.

Giusto says his critics "never operated anything in their lives." Among Giusto's critics is his predecessor as sheriff, Dan Noelle.

Giusto has admitted that he had a "very close friendship" with ex-Gov. Goldschmidt's wife.

Crime rates in Multnomah County have been on the decline, in most categories, since 1997. Says Giusto, "Not to me. Crime is on the rise."

Giusto made an unsuccessful bid to become the Portland police chief in 1999, losing out to Mark Kroeker.

That same year, he considered running for state Senate after months of public urging from Oregon's Democratic Party.

 
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