Tough Balancing Act Confronting Sheriff Shepherd

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Recently elected Gila County Sheriff Alan Shepherd struggled out of his cocoon last week, for a candid, wide-ranging question and answer session in front of the Payson Tea Party.

The new sheriff has been holed up in his office for most of the last eight months, changing out almost every top administrator in the department. Although Shepherd spent 28 years working his way up through the ranks, his election still brought sweeping changes to the management of the most thinly stretched, hard-pressed law enforcement agency in the county.

Make no mistake: We all have a vital interest in how well Shepherd makes the transition — and puts his stamp on the sheriff’s department.

For starters, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office provides police protection for Star Valley under contract as well as the great, vulnerable scatter of unincorporated communities throughout Rim Country — including Pine, Strawberry, Tonto Creek, Tonto Basin, Whispering Pines, Mesa del Caballo, Beaver Valley and East Verde Estates.

Sheriff deputies often patrol a long, lonely stretch of territory and provide vital support for every fire department and municipal police department in the county.

But the department has struggled like just about everyone else to make ends meet these past few years, as the decline in property values has eroded the financial foundation of the county.

Sheriff Shepherd’s struggle has been compounded by the drying up of state and federal support — including money for a vital drug task force. Unfortunately, the abuse of illegal drugs and the return in strength of standbys like heroin and cocaine have taxed the department’s resources. The sheriff rightly observes that drug use lies at the root of a host of social problems. We continue to fumble with our losing “war on drugs,” leaving it to the overwhelmed deputies and the helpless jailers to compensate for the lack of treatment and education and alternatives to incarceration.

Moreover, Shepherd remains hampered by the geography of the county and the lopsided distribution of the county’s resources. Globe still controls two of the three seats on the board of supervisors, even though more than half of the population and about 80 percent of the county’s assessed value now lies in the north. Most of the deputies are still based in Globe, which also has the central administrative offices and the benefit of the jobs based in the county jail.

More importantly, longtime county policies that have put the jail, administrative offices and courtrooms mostly in the south means the sheriff’s department must squander time and resources transporting prisoners and juggling court calendars. To be fair, Rim Country voters a few years ago refused to approve a bond issue that would have paid for the court and jail facilities we so desperately need. But a long succession of county administrators and supervisors have largely ignored the problem, instead of seeking creative solutions that will treat Rim Country fairly.

Still, Sheriff Shepherd has already proven far more visible and connected to the concerns of Rim Country than his predecessor. He lives in North County, attends functions here and has begun to speak out.

So we’re happy he emerged all crinkly and chatty — and perhaps finally willing to stop treating Rim Country like a second-class citizen.

Now, admittedly: He’s just cracked the cocoon. So it’s maybe too soon to say for sure whether he’ll turn out to be a butterfly.

But it’s sure nice to see him fluttering about.

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