The Sheriff’s Office is mandated by state law to provide services to all county residents inside and outside of municipal boundaries. It must provide housing, food and basic medical care to an average population of 1,430 inmates at the County Jail, secure transportation of inmates to and from court, and respond to crime throughout the county.
Funding for the Sheriff’s Office per citizen has fallen drastically while calls for service including armed robberies, home invasions, child abuse and child enticements, are increasing. Those and other factors led to the county Question 1A on the November ballot.
The county’s population has grown over 61 percent since 1990 with more than 50 percent growth in unincorporated portions of the county. Yet the Sheriff’s Office patrol staff is the same as it was in 1990, despite a 137 percent increase in calls for service, with only eight to nine deputies per shift to cover 1,898 square miles.
Patrol deputies and citizens alike are at added risk because of slower response times and insufficient staffing to provide timely backup for deputies responding to violent crimes or those that have the potential to turn violent.
El Paso County’s cost per citizen for all Sheriff’s services is $71.22 annually according to the 2011 Ten County Publication. This is by far the lowest among Colorado’s 10 largest counties. Arapahoe County (second-lowest among the 10 large counties) has a cost per citizen of $115.16 with Jefferson County, the second-largest populated county, stands at $164.14. Unfortunately, at this level of funding, critical public safety functions of the Sheriff’s Office cannot be sustained nor can the Sheriff’s Office infrastructure.
This county’s property tax rate has declined from 25.7 mills in 1988 to 7.5 in 2012. But sales tax revenues, which were projected to offset the reduced property taxes, have fallen more than $300 million short over that period of time. As a result of shrinking budgets per capita, county funding for the Sheriff’s Office has not kept pace with either population growth or inflation.
Sheriff’s Office staffing is insufficient to assure the safety of deputies and inmates in the jail. Increases in mandated medical care and food costs for inmates have left no funding available to replace obsolete locks, surveillance and security systems within the jail, and failing obsolete communications equipment critical to emergency operations.
The County Citizens Budget Oversight Committee (CBOC) reviews the budgets of all county offices and departments each year and prioritizes the competing needs of each of those offices and departments. CBOC has recognized a critical and urgent shortfall in funding for public safety and recommended referral of a ballot issue to the voters to address these needs in each of the past five years.
The Waldo Canyon fire and co-occurring events highlighted insufficient staffing for patrol functions, emergency planning, emergency operations and response. Insufficient wildland firefighting equipment, obsolete communications technology and overall inadequate staffing within the Sheriff’s Office were also recognized during this emergency.
The Sheriff’s Office has demonstrated a commitment to serving our citizens and taking an active role to improve our quality of life. Many of our efforts have been praised by national organizations and identified as models for other agencies to follow. Citizens in this community have all witnessed the resourcefulness and creativity it has achieved.
This ballot issue only brings the sheriff’s staffing to levels that are proper to serve the population growth we have seen over the past two decades. Furthermore, this is a very scaled-down version of what was proposed to the voters in 2008.
The funding crisis facing the Sheriff’s Office has been evolving for several years and has been the topic of discussion among county officials for many years with no viable short- or long-term solutions other than a referral to the ballot by the county commissioners.
This ballot issue is directly related to public safety, statutory duties and the safety of those we expect to protect us. If this ballot initiative is approved by the voters, the Sheriff’s Office will still be the lowest cost per capita among Sheriff’s Offices of comparable size and jurisdiction in Colorado.
Terry Maketa has served as the elected sheriff of El Paso County since 2002.