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Fraternal Order of Police backs sales tax for Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin leads the procession of Sheriff’s Office officials at the memorial service for Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane in 2019. (Terrance Siemon/The Journal)
Sheriff’s Office struggles with budget cuts, inflation

This November, a ballot measure for a public safety sales tax will directly benefit the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, if passed, and would help provide vital funds to the underfunded agency after multiple budget cuts.

The Mesa Verde Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 74 is raising awareness for the tax, which would be levied on sales except for agriculture. Tax revenue would go to the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, the Detention Center and the drug task force.

“It cannot be used for anything else,” according to FOP Lodge Committee Chairman and Undersheriff Tyson Cox. “It can only go to the Sheriff’s Office for patrol operations, jail operation and the drug task force.”

The FOP Lodge will host a meet-and-greet July 13 so that residents can learn about the sales tax and meet lodge members. It is at 10 a.m. at the pavilion in City Park near the Cortez Recreation Center. The lodge grill hamburgers and hot dogs.

The FOP Lodge is composed primarily of Sheriff’s Office officers, but includes other law enforcement agencies.

Cox said the FOP is spreading the word about the sales tax because it is against the law for the law enforcement agency to promote it.

Cox said the tax would help the Sheriff’s Office continue to provide community services and competitive wages and benefits.

“We’re the lowest-paid agency in the Four Corners, and I’m talking basically about Farmington to Montrose and everything in between,” Cox told The Journal. “It’s become very difficult. We just lost our patrol lieutenant. We just lost 30-plus years of experience. … Until we become competitive, it’s going to be extremely difficult to sustain what we have going on right now.”

According to Cox, the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners is talking about a second consecutive year of budget cuts in 2025.

“The county is not generating the revenue that it traditionally did, and we have to seek another source of revenue,” Cox said. “And what the commissioners have said is, ‘Unfortunately, if this tax does not pass, there will be more cuts next year.’”

Cox used the Montrose Police Department as an example, saying their public safety sales tax allowed them to give “huge raises” to their staff across the board.

Montrose’s public safety sales tax was passed by the City Council in July 2019 and put on the November 2019 ballot. It was passed by voters and went into effect Jan. 1, 2020.

“They’re starting to draw the best talent from everywhere around because of how they’re starting their officers,” Cox said.

Montrose starts pay around $88,000, Cox said, while Montezuma County starts officers at $52,000 per year.

Cox also bemoaned the added impact of inflation on limited salaries and benefits.

“It’s becoming more concerning,” Cox said. “That’s why the membership of the FOP voted to really get behind the sales tax.”

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin at the Detention Center. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

Cox also said the tax revenue would help the Sheriff’s Office deal with the increase in service calls during tourist season, and that tourists also would pay the sales tax.

“There’s multiple times a year that we’re out looking for lost hikers or hunters, and we expend a lot of resources and capital and overtime,” Cox said. “And another big problem is that we’re seeing huge swings in our crime rate. The narcotics problem here is fueling increases in property crime and person’s crime. We’re also seeing auto theft and huge raises across the board in our calls for service, and we’re having to do it with less people.”

Right now, the Sheriff’s Office staffs up to three deputies per shift in a county that is 2,004 square miles.

“The kinds of calls that we’re responding to are far more aggressive and violent than we’ve seen traditionally,” Cox said.

Cox added that the sales tax would help pay for state mandates that will affect the Montezuma County Detention Center.

“They’re basically unfunded mandates from the state,” Cox said. “It’s stuff we’re going to have to do, and that stuff they’re requiring us to do is going to cost in the neighborhood of $300,000. It’s going to be things like minimum staffing requirements and housing requirements, and this list goes on and on.”

Cox said county commissioners could consider lowering the mill levy on property taxes to offset the sales tax.

“If you live in the county and you want a safe community for everybody, the sales tax is the best way to do that,” Cox said. “The commissioners have said they would look at the mill levy on property taxes and see if they can lower them to offset sales tax”

Cox said the Sheriff’s Office answered almost 20,000 calls last year, and because of understaffing, the call response time is about 24.5 minutes.

“We’re seeing an increased call load for the Sheriff’s Office that we have to meet,” he said. “We have to meet the needs of the community, and that is going to cost money.”

The Sheriff Office’s drug task force would also receive help with the sales tax money, something that Cox said is needed desperately in the county.

“We have had two large, federal drug trafficking investigations originate out of Montezuma County, and that means the drug traffickers are getting a strong foothold in our community,” Cox said. “The drug problem fuels all of our other crimes, our property crime, our person’s crime … so we just need to have the resources to combine that.”

The sales tax will be on the ballot in November.