On Thursday, Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin spoke out about what he called the “defunding” of the Sheriff’s Office after the Board of County Commissioners significantly cut the 2024 budget in December.
According to Nowlin and the budgets and documents that Nowlin provided to The Journal, the “defunding” began early in 2023, and the Sheriff’s Office has been significantly cut in the past two years.
The 2024 Montezuma County budget for the Sheriff’s Office is $1,884,747, a 20.91% decrease from $2,383,250 in 2023 and a 27.3% decrease from $2,593,868 in 2022.
A 2024 budget of $57,869,814 was approved, compared with a 2023 budget of $58.677,923, a decrease of 1.377%.
In January 2023, the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners halted pretrial spending, Nowlin said. In the budget, pretrial inmates would pay $50 for two or three deputies to monitor all pretrial clients. In total, this amounted to $40,000 to $60,000 annually, and helped pay for the pretrial services provided by the Sheriff’s Office.
“They sucked some of that into the general fund, some of it they pulled over into the detention line items for 2023, as well as some of the sheriff line items for 2023,” Nowlin said. “I wanted to help pay for training and equipment and some vehicle expenses for pretrial because they do home visits and everything else. That all went away. They took that away.”
In 2015, the year Nowlin became sheriff, the Sheriff’s Office signed a contract to provide security for special events and patrols on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation..
Nowlin had to end the Casino Contract with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe on June 30 because the commissioners wanted to negotiate a new contract, requiring them to remove all but $50,000 from the Casino Contract budget.
Every three years, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe helps replace a transport vehicle for the Sheriff’s Office with tribal money as per the contract.
Nowlin said the $35,000 given to the Sheriff’s Office by the tribe to go toward the $48,000 to $49,000 vehicle as per the contract in 2023 was sent to the county and never deposited into the sheriff’s budget to help purchase the new transport vehicle.
Faced with the shortfall, the Sheriff’s Office had to use nearly all its annual contract revenue to replace the vehicle and add necessary equipment.
“They kept it in the general fund,” Nowlin said. “I feel robbed, and it affects how we can continue to provide the best service possible to our citizens here.”
According to Nowlin, the commissioners – Chairman Jim Candelaria, Vice Chairman Kent Lindsay and Commissioner of Deeds Gerald Koppenhafer – collected money from the tribe until the contract officially ended June 30.
“They still collected $7,000 a month from the tribe until the end of June, but that’s not right. It was a contract between the sheriff and the tribe,” Nowlin said.
In addition to the contract, the Sheriff’s Office applies for a gaming-impact grant each year, as it deals with how gaming affects residents of Montezuma County.
According to Nowlin, when the $141,903 grant was awarded to the Sheriff’s Office in November 2023 for 2023 and 2024, expiring on June 30, 2024, but the commissioners didn’t give the entire grant amount to the Sheriff’s Office.
Instead of receiving the full award amount, the Sheriff’s Office was given $118,000, cutting overtime salaries from $20,000 to $7,000, when they spent around $18,000 on overtime in previous years.
Now, their budget only allows for $1,000 in benefits and just over $16,431 for equipment.
Nowlin spoke about the Sheriff Office’s contract with the city of Dolores, which allows the Sheriff’s Office to provide services at an extra amount.
At first, Nowlin said the commissioners attempted to increase the contract amount from $220,000 to $375,000, saying that Dolores should be helping provide firearms, ammunition, uniforms, body cameras and more for the Sheriff’s Office.
After discussions, they lowered it to $274,000.
For the 2024 contract, Nowlin said he, the Dolores Town Board and mayor unanimously approved and signed the document, agreeing to $250,000.
All that was left was for the county commissioners to sign off on it, but Nowlin said they revised the contract for $274,000 without input or a new vote.
“They didn’t like it and they rewrote it,” he said. “I had spoken to a commissioner that said they were going to sign it, and then all of a sudden, I get this. I get this revised contract.”
Nowlin said Dolores Town Board was upset by the changes.
“I explained everything that happened and that I didn’t think it was right that they could rewrite a contract that the town already approved,” Nowlin said.
At the end of December, the county commissioners approved their 2024 budget, despite community and Sheriff’s Office opposition to the cuts.
Nowlin also asked them not to approve the budget at the meeting, saying that multiple line items were incorrect in the sheriff’s portion of the budget.
Now, Nowlin said, he can’t even get on the agenda at commissioner meetings to address concerns or bring up other items. Previously, he gave monthly updates to the Board of County Commissioners; now, he provides quarterly updates.
County Administrator Travis Anderson emphasized that the Sheriff’s Office was not singled out.
“Montezuma County has 22 departments that require funding and we look at all budget requests equally,” he told The Journal. “When looking at budgets, it is important to understand that the county’s expenses continue to rise in all departments while at the same time, revenues continue to decrease. At this time, anticipated revenues for 2024 are expected to decline by $450,000 to $500,000.”
Anderson also said that not all line items from past years were included in the 2024 budget presented by the Sheriff’s Office, and that the budgets for other line items “were based on actual expenses from previous years.”
When Nowlin asked to address the Gaming Impact Grant at their January 2024 meeting, the commissioners denied the request, saying that the gaming grant was already allocated in the budget for dispatch services and would not be on the agenda.
Anderson explained that the Sheriff’s Office budget “reflects the receipt”of the total allotted money from the Gaming Impact Grant, and these funds were applied to the Cortez Dispatch Center for the sheriff’s dispatch services and overtime funding.
Before 2023, the Sheriff’s Office budget allowed $50,000 for vehicle maintenance and insurance. In 2024, it was lowered from $50,000 to $15,000 in the sheriff’s budget and was lowered from $15,000 to $4,000 in the Detention 2024 budget.
“Toward the end of 2023, the Sheriff’s Office received a fleet of new vehicles which allows for a reduction in vehicle maintenance; the insurance for the Sheriff’s vehicles is fully paid by the county and does not come from the Sheriff’s budget,” Anderson said.
In the LEA budget, it was reduced from $30,000 in 2023 to just $10,000 in 2024.
“This isn’t just cuts, it’s defunding,” he said. “None of this was transparent at all.”
One positive thing Nowlin shared was that after nine months of advocating for raises for Sheriff’s Office employees, Nowlin said they were given a $10,000 annual raise for the certified employees.
While this helps a lot, Nowlin said they are still behind when it comes to law enforcement salaries, especially since his deputies may have to start paying part of their medical insurance next year on top of paying for their dependents because of rising insurance rates.
“We are so far behind. I can’t compete with other agencies in the state because of the low pay and terrible benefits the county has,” he said.
When approving the budget, the commissioners also approved the removal of 10 open positions in the Sheriff’s Office, eliminating the chance for more deputies to be hired.
“I never got any input at all,” he said, also sharing that he didn’t know how many were cut until he read the story in The Journal about the decision at the beginning in January.
Nowlin pointed out that now it is easier to fill noncertified deputy positions and positions in the detention division rather than hiring certified officers.
“I don’t pay the benefits everybody else does,” he said. “We were set up to be fully staffed this year and got shot out of the saddle.”
“And they wonder why employees have moved to collective bargaining,” he said, while noting that he and the undersheriff couldn’t have any part in the push for collective bargaining.
In 2024, the training budget was also cut down significantly.
For 72 deputies, the budget allocates for $23,000 rather than the usual amount of $30,000.
Despite being understaffed and a significantly lower budget than usual, Nowlin said calls for services continue increasing by at least 1,000 per year.
In 2023, the Sheriff’s Office received 19,264 calls.
On Monday, Jan. 29, Nowlin provided more documentation to The Journal. The first was an approved grant from the Department of Public Safety, Division of Criminal Justice for $67,000.
According to the grant letter, the grant money is to be used to provide health screenings to certified and noncertified employees of the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office.
The documentation also showed that the county commissioners denied approval of the grant on Monday, saying that no county funds would be used.
“The grant submission did not align with the county procurement policy. By this policy, services identified in the grant must be put out to bid,“ Anderson said of the grant’s denial.
Nowlin expressed his frustration with the recent budget decisions, saying that local law enforcement needs more support from elected officials, sharing that he will lose three deputies from detention and one from patrol soon, with more that could follow.
“The public needs to know, we have no law enforcement support from the County Administration and the Board of County Commissioners,” Nowlin said.
Anderson explained that the decisions were made because of decreased revenues.
“Every spending agency in the county needs additional funds to support additional staff, equipment and programs. The reality is, revenues have decreased and expenses continue to rise. As elected officials, we must be good stewards and operate within the allotted resources and finances that we have available,“ he said.