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Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office prepares for tighter budget

Hiring freeze, lower vehicle funding will affect department
Deputy Ted Holland lets third-graders at Kemper Elementary sit in the saddle of a member of the Montezuma County Sheriff’s mounted patrol unit. The Sheriff’s Office added the unit in 2017.

The Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office is among several departments bracing for the impact of county budget cuts next year.

The 2018 county budget calls for about $13 million in expenditures, but only predicts about $12 million in revenue. Montezuma County commissioners plan to make up the difference by tapping into reserve funds and cutting support for programs including local libraries, the Cortez Animal Shelter and the Montezuma Community Economic Development Association. The Sheriff’s Office will not see the same loss of funding as other budget categories, but Sheriff Steve Nowlin said the cuts could still make county law enforcement more difficult next year.

Public safety, which includes funding for the Sheriff’s Office, jail and district attorney, is the largest spending category in the county budget. For 2018, spending is set at $7.4 million, a 4.2 percent increase from 2017. But while most public safety departments will get spending increases, some of the smaller ones will be cut. The emergency management fund will decrease from $85,974 to $82,854, a 3.6 percent decrease, and the $2.3 million jail fund will decrease by about $1,000, or 0.04 percent.

The Sheriff’s Office general fund budget will go up from $2.27 million in 2017 to $2.28 million in 2018, a 0.44 percent increase. Most of the spending increases are for employee wages, software, telephone bills and operating expenses.

All spending on sheriff’s vehicles, though, has been reduced. Nowlin said the 2018 budget replaces previous spending categories such as fuel and new vehicle purchases with the all-encompassing “fleet management costs” category, set at $203,042.

That amount will most likely pay for all maintenance on existing patrol vehicles, Nowlin said, but it will not cover the cost of new vehicles. The Sheriff’s Office typically buys two to three new vehicles per year to replace those with more than 100,000 miles on their engines.

“That’s not a safe vehicle to use as an emergency vehicle,” Nowlin said. “My standard is that when a vehicle gets up to 80,000 miles, it should be due for replacement within a year.”

Next year’s budget won’t allow for replacements. But the county is due to submit its last payment for five of its most expensive patrol cars next year, which Nowlin said he expects to free up more money for new vehicles in 2019.

The county’s budget shortfall also means the sheriff’s request to hire more deputies and jail staff has been denied. Nowlin said he may have to reduce the amount of security his department provides at events next year in order to make sure there are enough deputies to patrol the county.

Statistics gathered by the Sheriff’s Office show that felony crimes in Montezuma County have increased 33 percent since 2013.

Before the budget was finalized, Detective Lt. Tyson Cox said one of the department’s goals for 2018 was to increase patrols in areas of the county with higher rates of crime, like the southwest corner near County Road G. In a series of public presentations he gave with Undersheriff Vern Knuckles in November, Cox encouraged county residents to help the Sheriff’s Office by reporting crime and suspicious activity.

“If something doesn’t look right, then please drop us a line,” he said. “(Residents) know far more what’s going on in their community than we do ... because we can’t be everywhere at once.”

The detention center will also be affected, not only by the small decrease in county funding, but also by a lack of state funds. Although the county was awarded a Justice Assistance Grant this year to fund its jail education program, it has not yet received the money, Nowlin said.

The future of the sheriff’s long-term evidence storage, which is currently located in the old Montezuma County Courthouse, is also in doubt. Nowlin said he still doesn’t know where he will store that evidence if the building is sold next year.

Despite the county’s gloomy financial outlook, Nowlin said he has confidence in his staff’s ability to overcome challenges. He pointed to some improvements the sheriff’s office made in 2017, such as increased training for deputies and the addition of a mounted patrol program. He said that, despite being short-staffed, he believes the department is better prepared and equipped to handle crime than it was at the beginning of 2017.

“It’ll continue to be OK, one way or the other,” he said. “We’ll do our best every single day, no matter what.”

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