SAGUACHE — In an editorial on page 4A, Saguache County Commissioners have requested the clarification of statements made in past articles in the Center Post-Dispatch regarding sheriff’s deputy salaries and related issues.
There are also other statements made in their letter requiring further clarification, which will be addressed below.
In paragraph two of their letter, commissioners report that department heads and elected officials have the opportunity to state their requests and justify their needs while working through the budget process. In speaking with Sheriff Dan Warwick earlier this month, Warwick said he was unable to address commissioners when the preliminary budget was presented and therefore was unable to discuss any changes to his budget.
Commissioners rightly state in paragraph four they have increased the funding for the sheriff’s office and jail combined by $90,000 in the past two years. But the sheriff’s office and jail have been underfunded for over a decade, despite former sheriff Mike Norris literally begging commissioners for extra funding during his last four years in office. This is reflected in the minutes for those meetings.
The “recent article” commissioners refer to in paragraph five, reporting that sheriff’s deputies are paid 30 percent less than those in Conejos County did not appear in this paper. Commissioners may be confusing it with a post that appeared on Facebook, authored by another individual. Articles on the sheriff’s office appeared in the Dec. 13, 20 and Nov. 2 issues. The Nov. 2 issue reported:
“The town of Saguache also needs a full-time officer but that contract has expired, he observed.
Salaries in like-sized counties [meaning not just population but geographic size as well] start at $40,000 a year for deputies. Saguache deputies start at $28,000, but right now all deputies on the force are at $32,000.”
The Dec. 13 issue stated: “Rio Grande, Conejos and Mineral counties did see their way clear to raise salaries for their employees, Warwick pointed out, and Conejos, at least, has just as many money problems as Saguache. Recent articles in local papers, however, point out that both Conejos and Rio Grande law enforcement officials still complain their sheriff’s offices are understaffed and their deputies underpaid.”
Commissioners erroneously report the designation for the excise tax funds in their letter, paragraph six. When voters went to the polls in 2016, they approved the excise tax initiative to be used for the following, as stated in the ballot initiative: “youth services, land use code enforcement, county infrastructure, marijuana program administration costs, and other General Purposes of the County…” There is no mention here of the landfill specifically.
Land use code enforcement could be interpreted as at least partial pay for marijuana code enforcement officer (deputy) Wayne Clark’s salary. The entire phrase marijuana program administration costs could be liberally interpreted to include salaries for additional officers need to deal with increased crime in the county due to both legal and illegal marijuana cultivation, a grant writer (which could be shared with other county departments) for the sheriff’s office to recover illegal grow operation costs, an additional code enforcement officer or two and any overtime. Or these costs could be included in the category “General Purposes of the County.”
While commissioners did not include funding the jail or sheriff’s office specifically in the initiative language, they commented during meetings held to discuss the initiative that this would be covered under the various headings. As one official noted, commissioners could also donate a portion of their salaries back to the county to help cover law enforcement expenses, as Pres. Trump and several of his staff have done on the federal level with their salaries.
Not mentioned in the commissioners’ letter is the fact that in addition to the $72,000 excise tax, the county also collects an additional $98,000 in variance fees, state application fees and conditional use permit fees. It is not clear where this is reflected in the county’s budget or what the county intends to do with these funds.
The three percent cost of living raise extending into 2018 was only granted following the Dec. 18 commissioners meeting where citizens appeared in droves to register concerns about the sheriff’s office funding and staffing. Following the departure of the citizens, Saguache County department heads, as a group, petitioned the board for the three percent increase and received it.
Rather than demanding a retraction from the Center Post Dispatch, it appears that Saguache County Commissioners need to be more diligent in ascertaining the facts as stated in this publication.