Agencies struggle to hire, retain officers
GRAND JUNCTION ” Growth, tight budgets, high living expenses and less-than-competitive salaries have left some western Colorado law enforcement agencies understaffed and scrambling to keep up with the rising demand for service.
Some agencies are seeking tax increases while others are working with elected officials to gradually add officers.
“We’re not fully staffed,” Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey said. “We’re less than that.”
Personnel statistics from area sheriff’s departments show that none is close to the U.S. Justice Department’s suggested staffing level of two deputies per 1,000 residents. Mesa County would need more than 268 deputies patrolling the streets, nearly three times its current 96.
But Hilkey said his department continues to respond quickly to calls from every part of the county.
Less-urgent tasks, however, may fall by the wayside during a major event, such as the search for a missing Grand Junction woman. More than two dozen department members were involved at one point in the investigation into the disappearance of Paige Birgfeld, a 34-year-old mother of three last seen June 28.
The population of unincorporated Mesa County, which the sheriff’s department serves, grew 15.3 percent from 2000 to 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Rio Blanco County Sheriff Si Woodruff said his eight deputies cover a population of 6,180 spread out over 3,221 square miles. Depending on schedules, one deputy might be responsible for 400 square miles and 188 miles of road.
A major event such as the oil tank explosion near Steamboat Springs in June that killed two teenagers can severely strain the department’s resources. Two deputies and Undersheriff Mike Joos drove the 70 miles to the site, leaving the most populated areas of the county with less coverage.
Woodruff said the incident cost his department $56,000 of its $76,000 overtime budget.
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, who regularly assigns 30 deputies to patrol, said his agreement with the county to add four deputies a year ends next year.
“We never have enough people anyway,” Vallario said.
The department serves nearly 52,000 people over nearly 3,000 square miles, which includes some of the most intense natural gas development in the region. Vallario said officers frequently deal with traffic issues involving the energy industry but he doesn’t have the staff to set up a traffic unit.
Glenwood Springs, the Garfield County seat, is struggling to hire and retain police officers. The police department’s force of 22 is four officers below what’s in the budget.
“I think there was once since I’ve been here, for a day or two, we were at full staff,” said police Lt. Bill Kimminau, a 22-year member of the department.
He said the reasons include the mountain town’s high cost of living and competition from the private sector.
Montrose County Sheriff Rick Dunlap said he has about half the number of deputies he needs. Thirteen deputies work in the east end of the county and five in the less-populated west end.
Dunlap plans to add nine positions, including two in the communications department and three deputies in the jail. He said it’s a tough sell, though, because of the pay.
The county commissioners recently approved boosting deputies’ starting salary to $37,314 from $34,050.
But, Dunlap said, it’s still less than starting pay for a Montrose police officer and considerably less than the $50,201 for a Mesa County sheriff’s deputy.