Grant County explores public safety options after John Day Police Department dissolves

By Antonio Sierra (OPB)
July 20, 2023 11:56 p.m.

Sheriff says his office is stretched thin while covering thousands of square miles

A John Day police funding ballot measure couldn’t muster enough support last year, and with the sheriff’s office feeling the effects of the fallout, Grant County leaders are debating whether to return to the ballot box.

The judge and commissioners of the Grant County Court, the county government’s top elected body, discussed putting a five-year public safety levy on the November ballot at a Wednesday meeting. The debate came after John Day, the county’s largest city, dissolved its police department in 2022.


John Day sought a levy of its own in a 2021 special election, according to the Blue Mountain Eagle. And although a majority voted for the measure, which would have added $50,000 to the police budget, the small city couldn’t clear the 50% voter turnout threshold required to pass a new tax.

Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley said John Day losing its small police force — only two officers at the time of its closure — has further strained his department. The sheriff’s office has eight people to patrol the entire county, he said. That includes himself and other administrators.

A ballot drop box outside the Grant County Sheriff's Department, August 29, 2019.

A ballot drop box outside the Grant County Sheriff's Department, August 29, 2019.

Emily Cureton Cook / OPB

At 7,200 people, Grant County is one of Oregon’s smallest counties by population. But McKinley said the county’s residents are spread across 4,500 square miles, meaning deputies are often traveling long distances to respond to calls. With the John Day Police Department gone, the sheriff’s office is the last law enforcement agency in the county.

McKinley said he needs funding to hire two more deputies to help make up for the gap left behind by the defunct John Day Police Department. The Grant County budget committee also wants to boost the sheriff’s budget and recommended a five-year levy expected to raise $400,000 per year for public safety.

The recommendation had the support of County Commissioner John Rowell, who made a motion to put the levy on the November ballot.


“I still think we should go out to the people with this and find out what they want,” he said. “Because it does affect them.”

But not everyone on the court was ready to put the issue to voters. Commissioner Jim Hamsher said the county needed to meet with residents and city leaders to figure out if they could come up with alternative ways of funding public safety. He added that the best way to sustain public safety funding beyond ballot measures would be to expand the tax base.

“That’s why I’d like to try to find some other way that actually would be a long term solution,” he said. “Because a five-year levy is just that: five years.”

McKinley wasn’t committed to the levy proposal either, saying that he was willing to look at alternatives.

Dealing with shrinking tax bases, rural counties across Oregon have struggled to maintain their sheriff’s offices. Josephine County voters rejected ballot measures for public safety funding both before and after the sheriff’s office handed out pink slips in 2012. When the Wheeler County sheriff announced his resignation in 2018, the entire department decided to leave with him. At the time, staff members were buying their own guns and personally changing the oil on their patrol vehicles, according to the East Oregonian.

Grant County also considered another major change to public safety: the elimination of the justice court. The Grant County Justice Court presides over lower level criminal and civil cases, like misdemeanors and small claims. Should the county shutter it, all of the justice court’s cases would be bumped up to circuit court.

Rowell said he was putting the idea on the table as a way to cut costs and it wasn’t meant as a criticism of the court or its staff.

“We’re going to have to make decisions on a budget,” he said. “It’s going to not be popular. It’s not going to be good. There’s no such thing as a good way to do these things. But I put this on the table to be considered by this court to make sure that we are clear what we’re facing coming down the road.”

The proposal didn’t seem to gain much traction with the other members of the court, who worried about the burden it would put on the circuit court and how it would affect wait times for the people who used it.

The court ended up tabling both ideas until their next meeting, but commissioners need to make a decision on the public safety levy in August if they want to make the November election filing deadline.