Drug court becomes breaking point in battle for more money

Michael Schrunk, District Attorney

Michael Schrunk, District Attorney

From the Oregonian, November 3 2009

In an excruciating budget year that has seen millions slashed from Multnomah County departments, the line in the sand has come to this: an $84,020 gap in the $1.3 million drug court budget.

As they dealt with one of the biggest shortfalls in years this spring, Multnomah County commissioners cobbled together enough cash to keep the lauded treatment court from the chopping block.

But the program on Tuesday became a symbol of the frustration that has built up among elected officials worn out from tussling over money for months.

“It’s the stress of having all of these programs we all agree we need and not having money to provide them,” said Commissioner Jeff Cogen. “At the end of the day, it’s probably not about the drug court, but about programs being so strapped.”

Here’s the problem. In the budget adopted in June, the county funded $847,000 of the drug court costs and got another $316,000 from federal and state sources. The district attorney’s office was supposed to find grants that would pay $120,000 for the prosecutor assigned to the drug court.

District Attorney Michael Schrunk applied for three grants and just learned he’d been turned down a third time.

The program has run up a $36,000 deficit. During a board briefing, Schrunk told commissioners if they didn’t come up with $84,020 to fund the position for the rest of the year, the program would shut down.

The special court offers people caught possessing drugs a chance to trade a felony conviction for treatment. It was the second in the country, and now more than 2,300 exist.

“I’ve gone around preaching the virtue of drug court and forced drug treatment. I don’t like being in this position — it’s embarrassing,” Schrunk said.

Chairman Ted Wheeler wasn’t buying it. He questioned why Schrunk couldn’t move one of his 69 district attorneys to the drug court.

Schrunk said he’s already stretched thin and can’t afford to pull attorneys from gang, neighborhood, personal crime and domestic violence work.

“I am asking people to come back early from maternity leave … you know we’re hurting,” he said.

But Wheeler said the county “dug deep” provide most of the drug court money with the understanding that the district attorney — which is also funded by the county — would cover that one small portion.

The briefing ended with what appeared to be a stand-off — neither Schrunk nor Wheeler budged.

But in an interview after the meeting, Wheeler said what the other commissioners and Schrunk also acknowledge: The drug court won’t shut down over what amounts to a drop in the county budget bucket. Still, he said he doesn’t like being put over a barrel.

“I have a lot of respect for the district attorney, I mean that, but to say it’s a priority and then not have the drug court DA be funded as any of the 70 DAs … means it’s not a top priority,” he said.

At the same time, he said, “I think it would be stupid for Multnomah County not to fund the drug court, so we’ll find a way to get it done.”

Schrunk echoed that sentiment as did other commissioners.

But all involved admitted they’re feeling the effects of fatigue from slicing budgets for nine years.

“I think what you ran into is a bunch of frustration,” Schrunk said. “That’s the danger you get into when you’re cutting programs that work.”

Cogen said the parties need to move past it. “It doesn’t have to be the DA winning or the board or chair winning. We need to sit down and get something together to keep this program running.”

OUR COMMENT – You tell him, Ted.