Montezuma County Commissioners chose to augment public safety Tuesday with a preliminary approval to increase the sheriff’s 2020 budget for additional patrol and jail deputies.
During a budget workshop attended by 45 residents, the commissioners heard testimony from nine former and past law enforcement professionals on the need for more officers. Several residents also spoke in support of the increased Sheriff’s Office budget.
After a long discussion and some hesitation, the commissioners gave preliminary approval for a $315,000 budget increase request from Sheriff Steve Nowlin, and the audience applauded. It allows for three additional full-time patrol deputy positions and three additional full-time jail deputy positions.
“I believe what I’ve heard tonight from law enforcement,” said Commissioner Keenan Ertel.
“We should fund it,” added Commissioner Jim Candelaria.
The proposed 2020 sheriff’s budget is $2.6 million, up from $2.2 million in 2019.
Starting salary for patrol deputies is $41,000 plus $12,000 worth of insurance and retirement benefits, Nowlin said.
For jail deputies, the starting salary is $36,500 plus $12,000 in medical and retirement benefits. Another $10,000 was budgeted for training and equipment for the new officers.
The increase would boost full-time patrol staff to 20 and full-time detention deputies to 18.
The additional deputies will improve deputy and community safety, keep pace with increasing calls, and allow for more proactive law enforcement, officials said during public comment.
It has been a need for a few years, said Undersheriff Vernon Knuckles. As the population grows, so do calls for service, but staffing has not kept pace, he said.
In 2018, there were 16,300 calls for service, more than double from 2016, which had 7,800 calls, according to Sheriff’s Office data. This year, calls for service are on track to match or exceed 2018.
Montezuma County population has grown from 25,535 residents in 2010 to 26,158 residents in 2018, an increase of 2.4%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nowlin said the department also handles cases from a regular and increasing flow of visitors and travelers coming in from three other states.
In the Mountain West, the average is 1.4 certified peace officers per 1,000 residents, according to the FBI database. Montezuma County and its towns have been operating at 0.99 officers per 1,000 residents, Knuckles said.
Typically, there are three patrol deputies on a shift, but one is often tied up doing paperwork, leaving just two on patrol to cover a large county area.
“We’ve become a reactive force,” Knuckles said.
Additional deputies allows the time “to be more proactive, talk with the community, and try and address problems before they escalate,” he said.
With the extra staffing, patrol shifts will increase from three to four deputies, Nowlin said.
“(The budget increase) is really appreciated; it improves service and benefits the community,” he said. He added there has not been a jail or patrol deputy staff increase in his five years as sheriff. A similar budget increase request was denied in 2018.
The lack of patrol staff has led to dangerous backup situations for the public and deputies, said sheriff detective Victor Galarza.
In 2016 while on solo patrol, he was assaulted by a suspect with a knife who had been trying to break into a woman’s house. No backup was nearby to quickly assist, and a prolonged fight broke out where the suspect threatened to kill Galarza while grabbing for the deputy’s gun and taser.
“It was a life or death fight, and the situation put me and the mother and daughter in the home at risk,” Galarza said.
The additional patrol deputy will allow for improved and safer coverage in rural areas, said one deputy.
Having enough staff reduces deputy “burnout and stress” and will help with retaining quality staff and recruitment, said Lt. Tyson Cox.
In the jail, having an extra jailer on shift will improve inmate and staff safety, said a detention deputy. Occupancy has been high recently, he said, and while overall people behave, when someone has a bad day, or there is an occasional fight, having extra staff makes it safer for everyone.
The additional Sheriff’s Office funding will come from the county’s general fund reserve, which is at about $13.7 million. The final county budget will be voted on in December.