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Positions cut from Montezuma Sheriff’s Office; employees petition for collective bargaining

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin is seeking a third term. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
The positions and budget were cut at the Dec. 28 county commissioner special meeting

On Dec. 28 at a special meeting, the Montezuma County Commissioners passed a budget for 2024 that cut 10 positions at the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, leading to a public and law enforcement outcry at the start of the new year.

Before the cuts became official, Sheriff’s Office employees submitted a petition to the state of Colorado “that may trigger a vote toward collective bargaining,” per Senate Bill 22-230, which went into effect July 1, according to a letter provided to The Journal from Allen Phelps Jr., the president of Mesa Verde Lodge 74 Fraternal Order of Police.

The collective bargaining came in after the FOP’s meeting Oct. 5.

“An overwhelming majority of employees at the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office have voted along with the Members of Lodge No. 74 Fraternal Order of Police for us to seek collective bargaining rights and be represented by the FOP after the Collective Bargaining for Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office Employees,” Phelps said in the letter.

Lodge No. 74 of the FOP, which was established in Montezuma County in September 2023, submitted the petition to the state as a show of interest with a collection of 98% of employees, which will “trigger a secret ballot election,” according to Phelps.

“We expect to have an election for the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office employees to formally vote to choose collective bargaining rights and select the FOP as their bargaining agent representative hopefully to begin in 2024,” the letter stated.

Out of 72 employees, Phelps said they were able to get 70 signatures in support of the initiative.

To form a collective bargaining unit, the FOP will need 50% support from voters. If the vote is successful, the FOP will be able to negotiate regarding benefits, wages and working conditions for those in the Sheriff’s Office on their behalf.

In a phone call with The Journal, Phelps said collective bargaining gives the FOP a voice so they can work as a mediator for the Sheriff’s Office.

“In this case, it would probably be a state attorney provided by the FOP to try to secure better benefits and working conditions for the employees at the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office,” he said.

The positions eliminated by the commissioners were unfilled positions, no one was fired in the process, but the FOP noted in their letter that the Sheriff’s Office is already understaffed, and cutting the positions eliminates the possibility of them having adequate staff.

The FOP said in their letter that the cuts put the Sheriff’s Office “in further deficit with our county suffering the brunt of these cuts to enforcement.”

“Crime continues to rise with fewer officers on the street, resulting in longer response times and added stress on the officers. Which in light of the recent shooting, puts the public at even greater risk of being victimized,” Phelps said.

Phelps told The Journal that they not only want to help get better benefits and increased salaries for those in the Sheriff’s Office but also be able to attract candidates to fill the open positions in the office.

“Attracting candidates to our location creates a safer environment, better quality training and on and on,” he said. “Nobody wants to put their life on the line for $40,000 a year.”

According to data provided in the letter, Montezuma County is the third-least safe county per capita in Colorado and has the second-highest cost of crime to the community, with Aurora being the highest.

Now, the Sheriff’s Office is only able to have two deputies covering over 2,000 square miles at one time and the shortage has led to a response time of 32 minutes. Phelps and Victor Galarza, a member of the Sheriff’s Office and narcotics investigation team, said another concern is retaining officers.

“We want to maintain a law enforcement community here in Montezuma County that can provide well-rounded safety and security for our community. We want to retain our law enforcement officers and bring and bring in other law enforcement officers,” Galarza said.

“We’re the first line of defense,” Phelps said. “If we’re understaffed, it’s going to be very difficult to handle.”

The letter echoed what Phelps and Galarza told The Journal.

“The goal of Mesa Verde FOP Lodge No. 74 and its bid for collective bargaining is to create a better working environment, job retention, better benefits for the employees and families of the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office and Montezuma County residents a voice for their future. FOP Lodge No. 74 is dedicated to giving a voice to the men and women of the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, who put their lives on the line every day to serve the citizens of Montezuma County, thus effectively creating a safer and stronger community in which we live,” the letter said.

At the commissioner meeting on Dec. 28, multiple citizens and members of the Sheriff’s Office spoke to commissioners, urging them to reconsider the budget.

Galarza, who has been working with the Sheriff’s Office for 12 years, said he has devoted “blood, sweat and tears to protect the place I call home.”

He provided information on the rise of violent crimes and felony assaults on officers. “This will only place our law enforcement officers in danger, not to mention the rest of the county and its citizens.”

He told commissioners that Montezuma County has one of the smallest narcotics investigation units in the state, and the drug trafficking is “taking a foothold” in the community with tens of thousands of fentanyl and other illicit drugs being brought into county lines.

He said cutting these positions and lowering the budget is “hampering our ability to combat and keep this poison from coming into our home.”

“Why should we stay?” he asked.

Jena Guttridge, who has three children in local law enforcement, asked the commissioners to take time to think of other ideas.

“Cutting those positions is going to put us all in danger and put my children and your children at risk,” she said.

After public comment was over, the commissioners emphasized that they hadn’t fired anyone, merely cut positions that were already unfilled.

“We can’t keep spending over what we have,” one commissioner said, noting that the budget is over $1 million less than what it was in 2023, even though costs have risen.

“This has been the hardest year we’ve ever had to deal with,” they said.

The commissioners passed the 2024 budget at the end of their meeting.

The Journal will follow up with Sheriff Steve Nowlin and Montezuma County commissioners for comment.