Sheriff defends LEA funding to commission

Spruell says loss of funds would require eliminating patrol deputy positions

With a $100,000 assessed property value, county residents pay $11.55 annually to the Montezuma County Sheriff's Office Law Enforcement Authority. Business owners with the same assessed value pay $42.05.

Former Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace launched the Law Enforcement Authority (LEA) funding idea to generate an extra $412,000 annually to hire four additional patrol deputies. Voters ultimately approved the measure, authorizing a 1.45 mill levy increase to use in unincorporated areas of the county.

"When Gerald Wallace sold the LEA funds, in my opinion, it was the best thing he could have done," current Sheriff Dennis Spruell told county commissioners on Monday. "At that time, we were the lowest-paid agency of our size in the state of Colorado."

For more than an hour-and-a-half, Spruell and Undersheriff Lynda Carter outlined why the LEA tax needed to be continued. If lifted, Spruell said he would be forced to eliminate patrol deputies from his staff, including the department's lone drug agent. Five sheriff officials also attended Monday's meeting as spectators.

"If we take away LEA funds, we are going to drastically reduce our patrols by five deputies," Spruell said. "That is just unacceptable."

Spruell told commissioners he has used LEA funding to purchase a fingerprinting machine for concealed-carry permits, provide deputies a 30 percent wage hike and hire five deputies. Spruell quickly dismissed questions recently raised by Wallace regarding his use of LEA funds.

"This is nothing more than a political attack to get rid of me," he said.

Last month, Montezuma County commissioners Larry Don Suckla and Steve Chappel suggested a full repeal of the LEA tax after being inundated with citizen concerns about a recent decision to approve LEA funds for the purchase of 18 new sheriff vehicles. County officials forecast the LEA budget to increase from $745,000 in 2013 to more than $870,000 this year.

The idea to abolish the LEA tax was also rejected Monday by Carter. She projected the lease agreement to purchase new vehicles would save the sheriff's office more than $100,000 in maintenance costs over five years. She also told commissioners they don't have the authority to eliminate the tax.

"Three men cannot take away what the voters want," said Carter.

County attorney John Baxter maintains that a public vote to repeal the tax wasn't necessary, telling commissioners Monday that they had the authority simply not to approve the tax in the future.

Commissioners have previously questioned whether the sheriff's $5.3 million budget is bloated. In response, Carter said Monday that the sheriff's office did not use 11 percent of its annual appropriations last year.

"We're being extremely conservative," Carter said. "Being lean is good, but being anorexic is dangerous."

According to sheriff's office records, the department generated more than $535,000 in revenues last year, including $171,450 to house City of Cortez inmates, $4,552 in fingerprinting fees and $40,458 in inmate booking fees, to name a few. The sheriff's office also receives funding from agreements with the Ute Mountain Casino and the Town of Dolores.

The initial five-year vehicle lease agreement includes ten 2014 Ford SUV police interceptors, five Ford SSV F-150 pickups, two 2014 Chevrolet vans and one 2014 Ford Expedition, at a total of $796,961. All the vehicles will be purchased locally, and officials hope to have the new vehicles delivered this month. The agency would own the vehicles after five years, Carter said Tuesday.

Commissioners did not take any action to reduce the sheriff's office budget, and indicated they did not intend to reduce salaries for personnel. They also authorized the purchase of new sheriff vehicles using LEA funds.

According to Spruell, LEA spending surged last year to maintain the department's aging fleet of vehicles, which led the agency to initially request the new vehicles.

"We looked into this," Spruell said. "We didn't decide hey we need some new cars and LEA has a whole bunch of money, so let's just snatch it. That's not what we did."

Spruell said LEA funds were aimed to supplement the sheriff's office with better equipment and better wages. He told commissioners it was time for the county to stand up and take care of its own.

"There's no reason here in Montezuma County that we should have substandard equipment and wages," he said.

Described by supporters as a "constitutional sheriff," Spruell said the federal government was in dire straights, and he refused to accept any funds from either the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management to patrol their jurisdictions in Montezuma County.

"I refused the money, because I think we need to take this country back, and I think we need to do it one county at a time," Spruell said. "I don't want to go to the federal government, and say, 'I need your help.'"

With LEA funds, Spruell said he could avoid using federal funding, while at the same time be able to provide his deputies with the equipment and resources they need.

"I want the best for my deputies," Spruell said. "That's what every good sheriff wants, but I also want what's best for my community."

According to Carter, the national average is 1.6 patrol deputies for every 1,000 residents. She said Montezuma County has a single patrol deputy for every 1,000 residents.

"We are severely understaffed," Carter said. "We've made it work due to creative personnel management."

Carter also reminded commissioners that the sheriff's office is also charged with protecting the half-million annual visitors to Mesa Verde National Park. The sheriff's office does not patrol the national park.

"When the tourists come here, we owe them professional law enforcement," Carter said.

Questioned by commissioners if LEA funded officers have jurisdiction in the city limits, Carter said deputies were sworn to respond to any criminal activity they witness. She proposed if the incident was a property crime, for example, the victim could be a resident in an unincorporated area of the county.

"I want them to take care of business," she said. "That's our job."

Spruell added that LEA funded deputies don't actively patrol incorporated areas of the county, and he said they weren't allowed to run radar in the City of Cortez, for example. However, he said if an LEA deputy was in town for lunch and witnessed a motorist driving 70 m.p.h. down Main Street, then he expected them to stop the vehicle.

"That's my position, and I'm sticking to it," Spruell said.

Sheriff officials said the wage hike provided by LEA helped to recruit and retain deputies in Montezuma County. Carter said agencies on the Front Range pay upwards of $15,000 more per year.

"That's what we're up against," Carter said.

Spruell added the increased wages for personnel from LEA funding also had a side effect on incomes at the Cortez Police Department. He explained the city was forced to increase police salaries in order to stop officers from leaving to join the sheriff's office.

"It's been a benefit to the entire community," Spruell said.