SAGUACHE— After learning last week Saguache County could lose its sheriff and several deputies if basic sheriff’s office needs are not met by commissioners, Saguache citizens crowded into the commissioners meeting room and overflowed into the courthouse lobby to express their concerns Tuesday.
During the commissioner meeting citizen comment period, numerous citizens took commissioners to task for not sufficiently funding the sheriff’s office, especially in light of the growing marijuana industry (both legal and illegal) and the county’s chosen path to allow development of unlimited grows.
Mandatory services counties must provide by law include “the provision of jails, weed control, and establishment of a county or district public health agency to provide, at minimum, health and human services mandated by the state” (Colorado Local Government Handbook).
Currently the jail maintained by the county is understaffed, is in violation of health standards and is inadequate to serve the increase in crime the county has seen since the passage of Amendment 64, legalizing marijuana. This was made public prior to the sale tax initiative to build a new justice complex that failed in 2016.
While commissioners have argued that the maintenance of the jail does not mean mandatory funding of the sheriff’s office, prisoners cannot be taken off the streets and safely detained unless deputies are paid well enough to conduct the investigations and make the arrests, as several citizens have pointed out.
And unless prisoners are granted their civil rights, the county is open to lawsuits over wrongful injury and death and jail personnel and deputies are at risk of being attacked or murdered in their own complex. The possibility that deputies and jail personnel could make serious mistakes is compounded by the fact they are overworked and not sufficiently staffed, increasing the possibility of error.
Beginning with the statement “Principles before personalities,” Bonanza resident Bill Case opened citizen comments Tuesday telling commissioners he has contacted his state senator, the Attorney Generals’ office in Denver and no one can help. “It is now up to commissioners,” he said. “You cannot evade responsibility by shifting power to another.”
He cited a Colorado revised statute governing commissioners which states: “[Commissioners] are vested with reasonable discretion to be used to serve the interests of the citizens of Colorado [of whom] commissioners are simply the representatives.” Case closed by saying the commissioners’ number one responsibility was providing for the safety and security of the county.
The next citizen to speak advised that while commissioners are fond of saying Saguache County residents voted for the legalization of marijuana, “the citizens of Colorado did not vote for illegal marijuana grows or to underpay the sheriff’s office. These officers are here to protect us and they put their lives on the line. You must put a moratorium on marijuana, raise the salaries of these officers and the county assessor. They need help, so fund them. Put aside your egos.”
Another citizen said the sheriff’s office must be funded and told commissioners she intends to read the budget and discover why this is not already the case.
Crestone resident Lisa Cyriacks reminded commissioners she has looked at the budget and even if the figures are already factored in “a few things in the budget can be amended.” She noted there has been a decline in morale, not just at the sheriff’s office but among county employees in general. “We need a real evaluation of the budget,” Cyriacks said. “The general fund is $657,000 more than in 2017 and you also received $80,000 more in PILT finds than you expected. It’s time to have a discussion about how these monies are spent.”
Another citizen demanded commissioners become “proactive and innovative,” and “support law enforcement in every possible way. Everyone is talking about this — it’s not going away.”
Dan Gray stressed the need for a substation in Crestone, noting “The government there is out of control, there are rapes, meth heads, acid heads, cocaine and assault [issues]. Work from the heart— come clean and do your jobs.”
Another citizen accused commissioners of “not coming together for the good of the people,” and claimed the quality of life in Saguache County has declined significantly. Bob Tafoya of Moffat noted that other government agencies refuse to address the corruption in Moffat and the need for additional law enforcement protection there. “I’m here to support the sheriff’s office,” he said.
Other citizens described how they must now police their own rural properties themselves because of increased traffic and potential threats from illegal grows, noting there are not enough personnel at the sheriff’s office to be everyplace at once. Luana Lovato told commissioners the jail facility is “completely inadequate and it is a shame the county will not move forward to fix it.”
Sky Wright, a victim’s advocate affiliated with the sheriff’s office, spoke of deputies buying their own equipment and said deputies are spread too thin throughout the county, urging the board to do something. Another called Saguache County “a laughing joke in the Valley” and urged commissioners to create a new marijuana code system and declare a moratorium, also support the sheriff and appraiser’s office.
A dispatcher with the Saguache County Jail said the jail is “not safe” and prisoners cannot be exercised without the possibility they will encounter their victims. He urged commissioners to appoint another marijuana code enforcement officer, because these duties are so demanding “it is too much to put on one person.”
Mike Wheeler said that while legal marijuana grows are a boon to the county, the sheriff’s office must be beefed up to deal with illegal grows or the criminal element will take over. He also pointed out that if salaries are not adjusted all the county can get in the way of deputies is “the bottom of the barrel.”
Nicky Parker offered to help the sheriff’s office look for grants to fund a new jail and told commissioners they should audit the budget to find additional funds to supplement the sheriff office’s salaries.
Commissioners said they intend to issue a letter to the editor to local papers addressing the marijuana and sheriff’s office issues. They pointed out the sheriff’s office budget has increased over the past two years while other departments have not seen an increase. Commissioner Jason Anderson said other communities in southern Colorado are facing the same problems and have issues as well.
The board defended its budgeting for the sheriff’s office and said that the sheriff only asked for the budget he received and could have asked for more. Following the meeting, others commented that commissioners told Sheriff Warwick earlier this year it would not do him any good to ask for more money because he would not receive it.
Sandia Belgrade, a reporter with the Crestone Eagle offered this final comment to commissioners: “People do not feel you are being proactive enough. The whole county is asking for help.”
In the afternoon portion of the meeting, commissioners met with elected officials and did approve a 20 percent raise effective in 2019, although state guidelines would have permitted a 30 percent raise. This will amount to a 1.67 cost of living raise and applies to the sheriff as well.