Whoever wins the race for Gila County Sheriff will take office in an era of stifling economic woes that undercut the county's ability to expand overcrowded jail facilities.
Moreover, state officials are contemplating sending state inmates to the counties without reimbursing the county for its expenses, according to county officials.
"We've got a jail facility that is totally inadequate," said Gila County Sheriff John Armer at Monday's Citizens Awareness Committee candidate forum.
Retired deputy Darrell Stubbs is challenging Armer. Both men are Democrats, which means that whoever wins the Sept. 2 primary will likely take office. Stubbs said he had to retire before running.
The two candidates disagreed on crime statistics, but agreed on needing new jail facilities. Stubbs proposed expanding training and outreach programs. Armer countered that many of Stubbs' proposals already exist.
According to Armer, the 30 women jailed in Globe outnumber the 18 available beds for females. That is the most pressing issue, Armer said. He has proposed modular units as a remedy.
Payson's facility, which Armer said essentially operates as a booking center, needs expanding.
"We need to have enough space to hold those inmates that are scheduled for trial in Gila County so we're not transporting them back and forth," Armer said.
But formulating that solution depends on available funding, and Globe is first priority, he said.
If the problem continues to worsen, both candidates denounced the worst-case scenario of setting misdemeanor violators free. "I don't ever want to be in a position where I have to say," Armer said, "if it's a misdemeanor I won't take them."
Stubbs agreed. "If you're out there committing a crime, we have a room for you and that's what I want them to know."
Crime rates will likely not drop, Stubbs said. So the county needs to make sure it has space for its criminals.
"I would have really liked to see the Taj Mahal jail that they were talking about building," Stubbs added. However, finances limit possibilities.
Stubbs, while opposed to tents, said the idea of a tent city is tantalizing. He suggested substituting metal buildings for tents.
"Lots of people are going toward them because they're cost effective."
Should a new facility be built, Stubbs advocated for building on land the county already owns as opposed to purchasing new property.
Armer said crime has dropped dramatically during his tenure and cited Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics to prove it. Instances of major crime dropped from 1,226 in 2002 to 642 in 2007, Armer said. He added that 2008 statistics should be released shortly.
Stubbs said Gila County's per capita violent crime rate is still above the national average, and he said the narcotics task force told him the county's crime is wholly attributable to its drug problem.
Armer disputed the statement. "I've never heard our task force say that 100 percent of our crime is related to drugs," he said. It's mistaken "to say absolutely 100 percent of anything is going to be the truth."
Armer estimated the percentage of drug-connected crime at 85 percent. "So let's set that straight."
Stubbs acknowledged the statistic sounded strange to him also, but reiterated that's what he was told.
To fight crime, Stubbs said he wants to mobilize citizens, both as volunteer police officers and by strengthening neighborhood block watch programs. Police need better training on dealing with drug-specific search warrants, and he advocated increased participation in Desert Snow, a drug fighting training program for police.
Stubbs also wants to start a Home Alone Program, which involves programming a device with emergency phone numbers. Those home alone can activate the device in an emergency.
To decrease reliance on county coffers, Stubbs advocates creating a nonprofit justice foundation for law enforcement funding.
Armer replied, "We do a lot of the things that Darrell mentioned already." He said the county has graduated roughly 12 officers from Desert Snow, for instance.
He has also co-sponsored citizens law enforcement academies and increased senior safety by providing the population with nearly 500 cell phones for making emergency calls.