“Confident where we are headed”
By Mark Reaman
A one-year transition period has been agreed to by Gunnison County and Mt. Crested Butte to transfer responsibility of law enforcement duties in the unincorporated north end of the valley to the sheriff’s department.
Currently, the county contracts with Mt. Crested Butte police to provide the service. It was agreed by both parties on Tuesday that a 12-month extension of the contract would be the best move to make the full transition.
The county and town also agreed to work out a more detailed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the government bodies detailing the operational aspect of the transition. That document will be signed before January 31, 2018. The town will receive $91,000 from the county for next year’s service. The town received about $140,000 for the service last year but it is expected that as the sheriff’s department does more work up here it will take on more of the direct costs.
There had been some friction between the county and town leading up to the agreement. The county requested a six-month extension and the town wanted a three-year contract. Communication between the parties appeared sketchy at best.
But sheriff Rick Besecker told the county commissioners Tuesday morning that he and Mt. Crested Butte police chief Nate Stepanek “were heading in a positive direction.”
“Both chief Stepanek and Crested Butte chief Mike Reily are willing to help get us in the saddle in the north end of the valley,” Besecker said. “That is important and we plan to continue to meet weekly. I believe good communication will take care of any pre-existing concerns.”
Besecker relayed the same message Tuesday evening to the Mt. Crested Butte Town Council. “I heard the terminology of ‘If it’s not broke why do we need to fix it?’ but it was never broken,” Besecker said. “The county has the opportunity to take direct responsibility for law enforcement at the north end of the valley. I’ve talked with chief Stepanek and we have come up with a weekly communication schedule so the boards can be updated on the progress as much as they want.”
Stepanek said the new arrangement had been worked out to the satisfaction of his department.
Commissioner Jonathan Houck expressed concerns that details of the transition were not included in the extension. He was worried that nothing concrete would be accomplished and the county would be in the same position a year from now. County attorney David Baumgarten said an additional document in the form of the MOU could be used to spell out operations of the transition. Mt. Crested Butte mayor Todd Barnes expressed a similar sentiment as Houck. “We want to establish a timeline for communication through the process,” Barnes said. “We don’t want a ten-month repeat of this last year where we heard about the idea in February and nothing solid was done until now. I can support the one-year extension.”
Besecker said there would not be specific deputies assigned to the north end of the valley but that all of the department’s officers, including himself, would work the area. He said deputies would be up here 20 of 24 hours per day and they are looking at office space in either Crested Butte South or Crested Butte.
“The main learning curve is becoming knowledgeable about the local culture,” Besecker said. “We will work with and take direct advice from the officers who are already here working and responsible for the coverage up here.”
Besecker said the transition had in effect already started, with sheriff’s deputies making trips to the north end of the valley.
Besecker agreed with councilwoman Janet Farmer’s remark that she was glad the extension was for one year instead of six months.
Besecker also agreed with councilman Danny D’Aquila that providing backup for first responders like firefighters and emergency medical technicians was important. “A police presence is so important. When on a call without an officer, it is extremely uncomfortable and we don’t feel as safe,” D’Aquila said. “We want to maintain the level of service and cooperation we have.”
“We are prepared to embrace that,” responded Besecker.
“I’m just glad that we’re talking,” added councilman Ken Lodovico. “That was where my frustration was, so I am glad we have gotten to this point.”
The county commissioners and staff felt similar frustration and pointed out Tuesday that communication about such a transition had started from their end years ago with the Mt. Crested Butte staff, but it always seemed to slip through the cracks and nothing ever happened.
Commissioner John Messner said given the public spotlight currently on the issue and the recent positive communication between Besecker, Stepanek and Reily, he was confident the transition would work well and could be complete in a year.
“I needed everyone to feel comfortable about how and why this would happen and I feel fine with that now,” said Besecker. “It hinges on good faith between myself and chief Stepanek and chief Reily and I think we have that. I am confident.”
“My main concern is that a year from now we are in the same position having a similar conversation,” said Houck at the commissioner meeting.
“Let’s continue the dialogue and help one another and not be back here having this beginning discussion again in 340 days,” summarized Barnes at the council meeting.
“I feel confident where we’re headed now,” concluded Besecker.