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Concern and frustration over police coverage issue

Mt. Crested Butte still waiting for response

by Mark Reaman

Officials in the north end of the valley are feeling frustrated and concerned with the apparent lack of communication about what is happening with the law enforcement contract between the town of Mt. Crested Butte and the Gunnison County sheriff’s office.

Since 1980 the county has contracted the police department to act as deputies and service the county area north of Round Mountain. The current contract expires December 31 of this year and the town has not seen any transition plan. That worries the Mt. Crested Butte Town Council members, who on Tuesday put out yet another call for communication between the town and the county to work out the situation before the contract ends.

“After repeated requests for communication, we are still looking for a plan that goes with the efforts from the sheriff’s department. There is a big lack of communication between the south end of the valley with the north end of the valley,” stated Mt. Crested Butte mayor Todd Barnes. “We have a lot of relevant questions. What is the timeline for a transition? How many officers will be working up here? Will there be a satellite office at this end of the valley? The contract ends in three and a half weeks. Who will be responding to accidents and incidents? Who will be in charge?”

Barnes indicated the county wanted a six-month extension of the current contract, and while the town preferred a three-year extension, at least one year was the minimum desire.

Gunnison county sheriff Rick Besecker responded to emails from the Crested Butte News Wednesday morning and said that the move was taking place “to take direct responsibility for law enforcement and public safety initiatives for the entire county, including our north region…Please understand that this is not a hostile takeover. It is an opportunity for the Sheriff’s Office to take direct ownership of obligations dictated by law.”

Acting town manager Karl Trujillo has said that financially, the county decision is a head-scratcher. The county pays the town about $140,000 to provide the coverage. He estimated taking over the coverage at the same level as is currently provided could cost county taxpayers about $1 million.

Besecker did not provide a cost estimate for the transition.

“Taxpayers in Gunnison, not just up here, will have to pay a lot more,” noted Barnes. “With all the effort to get the valley to work better together through things like the One Valley Prosperity Project, this has the potential to break the county apart. We have reached out to the sheriff, the county manager and the county commissioners and have not gotten answers. It is very frustrating.”

“The Mt. Crested Butte police department has set the bar for the level of service people expect up here,” said councilman Danny D’Aquilla. “The question is where will the county come in and can they meet that bar?”

“I feel very concerned with the lack of communication between the county and us,” added councilwoman Janet Farmer. “I haven’t seen the support I’d like. It should be very concerning for our neighbors in the north end of the valley. If this transitions out, we need to work together and it is sad to me that that is not happening. There are so many issues with this that are concerning.”

Barnes said while it appears the county is hiring new deputies in theory to take over the north valley service, he is concerned that the officers will be inexperienced and not have a working knowledge of the region.

Besecker said that in his opinion, because public expectations of law enforcement related services is paramount in this geographic region, the Gunnison County Sheriff’s response to those expectations must be more direct. “All of the Gunnison County deputies are already citizens of this county and have a deep rooted commitment to our collective community,” he said. “This transition will not see strangers or outside law enforcement taking over. This is simply a matter of re-centralizing efforts and responsibilities under the statutory defined authority of the Office of Sheriff. Of course, it is important that all of our deputies become even more acquainted with the north region, geographically as well as culturally. To that end, our intention is for all patrol deputies to be assigned by rotation to serve that area of Gunnison County.”

“Understand that it is not just having to cover Crested Butte South, but also the backcountry,” said councilman Nicholas Kempin.

“I’d certainly try again to encourage the county manager, the commissioners, the sheriff to sit down with us and explain how they plan to meet the current level of law enforcement service,” reiterated D’Aquilla.

“We are all professionals and can handle a meeting like that,” agreed councilman Ken Lodovico.

Lodovico also sits on the Crested Butte Fire Protection District (CBFPD) board and he said the fire district wrote the commissioners asking for the current contract situation to continue.

Crested Butte town manager Dara MacDonald told the council Monday that the situation could impact Crested Butte. “There hasn’t been a good dialogue between the parties and if the contract goes away we will still respond as law enforcement to situations but it is a grey area,” she told the council at the December 4 meeting. “It is becoming a concern that this situation doesn’t appear settled.”

“It is hard to argue against life-safety,” noted councilman Kent Cowherd. “That should be our primary concern that is relayed to them.”

Crested Butte chief marshal Mike Reily agreed. “For this mutual working relationship between our local first responders to change without a comprehensive plan is concerning,” he said. “If changes are to be made I would like to see open conversation and planning between the stakeholders to ensure the level of service and the safety of the public is not compromised. It is my hope the contract issue can be resolved within a timeline that doesn’t effect the citizens or services at our end of the valley.”

Two CBFPD paramedics asked the county commissioners on Tuesday to support the current contract situation. The commissioners noted the hiring of four new officers and said that the sheriff, as an elected official, has sole discretion over how to run the department.

“It is our hope that a six month extension will allow Mt. Crested Butte police officers to assist in the transition,” Besecker said. “That would help ensure that any impact on public safety and service will be normal as well as, allow Gunnison County and potentially involved law enforcement agencies to consider and work out the details concerning a mutual aid agreement. In addition, a six-month extension would provide the sheriff’s office more time to pursue our plans to establish a substation in the region.

“If Mt. Crested Butte does not see fit to extend the contract, the transition will become more difficult but Gunnison County is dedicated to this major change,” Besecker continued. “Our commitment and ability to provide quality and professional law enforcement services will not be affected.”

Farmer said the situation was a serious one and another effort should be made to finalize a plan with the county. She suggested the Mt. Crested Butte council make every effort to get a meeting with the county officials within the next two weeks and the council could make a decision on how to handle the matter at the December 19 meeting. The rest of the council agreed with that strategy.

“We need a face-to-face and we need some answers,” said Barnes. “We can table any action but the contract ends quickly. We shall see.”

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