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Basalt paying for shortage of sheriffs

BASALT, Colorado – When a woman was ambushed and stabbed multiple times outside of her residence in rural Eagle County in September, Basalt police officers were forced to take command in the case even though the site was outside of their jurisdiction.

Basalt police secured the scene, assisted the victim and searched for the assailant – providing critical initial services that would normally be covered by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.

The attempted murder at the Aspen-Basalt Mobile Home Park occurred shortly before dawn, during a shift change when no deputy was patrolling the El Jebel district.

“The county had a response time of almost an hour,” said Basalt Police Chief Keith Ikeda. “We responded in a matter of minutes.”

Ikeda said his department has an agreement with the sheriffs of Eagle and Pitkin counties to provide “mutual aid” in numerous circumstances – when crimes of violence are committed, for example.

While that is not unusual for law enforcement agencies, what is different in the relationship between the Basalt Police Department and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office is the number of times Basalt is called to render aid, Ikeda said. The frequency is directly tied to Eagle County’s staffing issues.

He made the revelation at a public hearing Tuesday on the Tree Farm project, a proposal in rural Eagle County near El Jebel for 319 residences and 96,000 square feet of commercial space.

Basalt Town Council members testified that if Eagle County approves the project, it will require Basalt services without providing revenues. Ikeda was the council’s star witness.

“At current staffing levels, we’re already negatively impacted,” Ikeda said at the hearing. The frequent rendering of mutual aid outside of the town’s boundaries can result in less service for Basalt residents, he said.

The sheriff’s office has one deputy on duty at a time in the Roaring Fork Valley sliver of Eagle County. Sheriff Joe Hoy said he attempts to employ deputies who live in the Roaring Fork Valley, but that’s not always possible. One or more deputies often start and end their shifts by driving the 50 miles between El Jebel and the county seat in Eagle. That means roughly two hours of an 11 1/2-hour shift are spent commuting.

It also means the midvalley area is occasionally left without a deputy on duty, such as when the stabbing occurred.

Ikeda estimated that 11 percent of the Basalt Police Department’s time is spent on mutual aid to Eagle and Pitkin counties. Of that time, two-thirds is spent assisting Eagle County.

Ikeda stressed that he was simply outlining the realities of the law enforcement in the midvalley rather than trying to tell Hoy how to do his job. He said the Basalt Police Department will continue to provide mutual aid. However, if Eagle County approves more development in the El Jebel area, it must provide adequate levels of law enforcement, he said.

The issue could come to a head next year as cash-strapped local governments look for ways to trim expenses.

“It’s always been a challenge over there,” Hoy acknowledged in a telephone interview when told about the discussion at the public hearing. He said he cannot justify putting more than one deputy on duty at a time in the El Jebel region, given the department’s tight budget and the number of calls.

“There are going to be times when we’re thin over there,” he said.

Currently, two deputies working the El Jebel area live there while a third one lives in Silt, Hoy said. The fourth slot is filled by deputies from Eagle on a rotating basis. That will soon change. A fourth deputy, who is now in training, also lives in the Roaring Fork Valley.

The county commissioners control the budget of the sheriff’s office. Four jail guards have already been approved for the detention facility that is being expanded in Eagle. Hoy said he will seek funding for an additional two patrol deputies, but the chances of getting the money for those positions is “slim and none,” he said. “This county is feeling the economic punch just like everybody else.”

Hoy said his department would require funding for additional staff for the El Jebel region if a large project like the Tree Farm is approved. Meanwhile, the department will continue to require occasional assistance from Basalt.

“Law enforcement officials watch each others’ backs,” he said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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