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Our View: Develop public safety sales tax

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin is being asked to do a lot with less after commissioners voted unanimously to pass the 2024 budget that eliminates unfilled positions in his already understaffed office.

In January, Nowlin told the Four Corners Free Press: “I understand cuts, and there’s only so much of a piece of the pie that I get. It just didn’t need to be such a thin piece.”

We get it. And so do community members who spoke out against cuts to MCSO.

Declining revenues necessitated the slashing. The county will lose about $450,000 across all agencies under the general fund. Montezuma has $16.4 million in revenues but about $17.2 million in expenditures. Numbers that don’t work.

Yet, we had hoped the sheriff’s office would be spared because of the rise in drug-trafficking and violent crimes. Calls to dispatchers continue to increase by about 1,000 every year. In 2023, 19,264 calls were handled. Two or three deputies cover the county at any time.

Inevitably, cuts could increase the danger for deputies. The recent murder of Cortez Police Sgt. Michael Moran in November 2023 during a traffic stop weighs heavily.

Law enforcement contracts with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Town of Dolores will be affected, too.

Commissioners aren’t helping the situation, either, by pointing fingers at the state Legislature. Yes, it’s complicated with assessment rates established by lawmakers, and residents asking the state to do something about high property taxes based on property values.

But local government can advocate on home turf for an increase in mill levies or develop the proposal for a public safety sales tax for the sheriff’s office, the detention center and drug task force.

As is, the county’s funding structure doesn’t allow for anything else. It’s time for this bold step with a public safety sales tax.

Montezuma County is not one to pass new taxes, with previous proposals for a general sales tax failing at the ballot. And in November 2023, voters said “no” to Ballot Issue 6A, a bump-up in property taxes that would have benefited Cortez Fire Protection District’s budget by $1 million. Baffling was that the measure to repair or replace emergency response equipment – nearing the end of life spans – and offset salary increases was bare bones. Had 6A passed, it would have cost about $9 a month.

Nowlin is worried his employees will seek better jobs. He has reason for that. “Losing people is what’s going to happen,” he said.

We hope this won’t be the case. But a majority of MCSO employees are seeking collective-bargaining rights to negotiate salaries and benefits, of which medical insurance is costly.

If we want effective law enforcement, we must pay for it. A public safety sales tax is worth every dime, even if we don’t know yet what it will cost.