Suckla questions sheriff’s budget

Commissioner urges repeal of rural tax agreement

A comparative study of jurisdictions with similar populations reveals that the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office budget might be swollen.

Ordered by Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla, the study examined the budgets of seven sheriff’s offices across Colorado with similar populations to Montezuma County. The local sheriff’s $5.3 million budget was second only to Teller County, which has a budget of $5.8 million. Elbert County had the lowest budget, $2.7 million.

Suckla advised at the commissioner’s meeting on Monday, March 24, that any government agency with a bloated budget usually tends to spend the entire budget.

“When you eat one piece of cake, it’s OK,” Suckla said at Monday’s commissioners meeting. “If you eat the whole cake, then you get fat.”

“We need to look close at our budget,” he concluded.

Suckla said he requested the study after he was inundated with citizen concerns about a recent decision to approve Law Enforcement Authority (LEA) funds for the purchase of 18 new sheriff vehicles.

Collected from property taxes, LEA funds are appropriated to the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office for any use in non-incorporated areas. County officials forecast the LEA budget to increase from $745,000 in 2013 to more than $870,000 this year.

Montezuma County Commissioner Steve Chappel called it an “excess in taxation” on Monday, citing the LEA budget was “stockpiled.”

“It would be novel for government to lower taxes,” said Chappel. “I think it would be wise for us to give it back.”

Suckla proposed a full repeal of the rural tax agreement by making it a ballot issue. County attorney John Baxter, however, said the public vote wasn’t necessary, and commissioners had the authority simply not to approve the tax in the future.

County administrator Melissa Brunner recommended the LEA be allowed to sunset at a fixed time in order to allow the sheriff’s office to absorb the budget loss. If the tax were to expire in 2015, the last two years of the recent five-year lease agreement for new vehicles would be paid using general funds, Brunner said.

Montezuma County Undersheriff Lynda Carter vehemently opposed the idea. She said slashing LEA funding would not only reduce department personnel by five deputies, but it would also force a 30 percent reduction in pay for all remaining employees.

“You’ll see a mass exodus from the sheriff’s office,” Carter said. “We’ll be left with one deputy and one sergeant working per shift.”

Chappel hinted the sheriff’s 76-member agency might be overstaffed. He said that trimming staff and readjusting salaries for those that remain could help to offset the LEA budget loss while not diminishing the community’s safety.

Earlier this month, commissioners questioned their decision to authorize the lease agreement, saying that the LEA proposal was initially sold as a rural property tax only.

Baxter tried to reaffirm concerns, telling commissioners they had the authority to enter into agreements using LEA funds.

“I don’t think you’re duping the voters,” Baxter said.

The initial five-year lease agreement included 10 2014 Ford SUV police interceptors, five Ford SSV F-150 pickups, two 2014 Ford Econoline vans and one 2014 Ford Expedition at a total of $796,961. Montezuma County Undersheriff Lynda Carter, however, said the order has been altered slightly, because Ford stopped making vans in February. She said the two Ford vans would be replaced with Cheverolet models. All of the vehicles will be purchased locally, and officials hope to have the new vehicles delivered by April, she added.

“The current fleet is aging and becoming more expensive to maintain,” said Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell.

Sheriff officials report that 16 of the agency’s 59 vehicles have more than 100,000 miles and 12 other vehicles would surpass 100,000 miles by the end of the year.

No action was taken this week as officials opted to table the sheriff’s office budget. Commissioners indicated they wanted to examine the issue more closely before making a decision.

tbaker@cortezjournal.com