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County to take over north valley law enforcement in 2019

Mt. Crested Butte officials still baffled by decision

by Katherine Nettles

Gunnison County plans to take over full law enforcement jurisdiction throughout the north end of the valley beginning in 2019, meaning the former contract for the Mt. Crested Butte Police Department to provide coverage will be defunct at the end of 2018.

Despite some delays in logistical preparations for Gunnison, and the impression from Mt. Crested Butte officials that the process has stagnated, Gunnison County sheriff Rick Besecker reports the arrangement is on track.

“We look forward with great anticipation at being able to serve our residents in the north region,” said Besecker.

The law enforcement agreement between the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Department and Mt. Crested Butte Police Department, which dated back to the 1980s, provided a budget to Mt. Crested Butte to maintain coverage of the area on behalf of the sheriff.

The contract was not renewed in 2018 when the Sheriff’s Department determined it would take over responsibility for the areas formerly patrolled by the Mt. Crested Butte Police Department. That area includes ranches, Crested Butte South, Skyland, and most other subdivisions to the north of Round Mountain, according to a document from Mt. Crested Butte police chief Nate Stepanek and town manager Joe Fitzpatrick.

When asked why this decision came after decades of contracting the work to Mt. Crested Butte, Besecker said, “The county commissioners and I felt that it is necessary at some point to establish direct responsibility for law enforcement in that area, and we now have the means for it. No matter how good the services may be, you’re always going to have differences, whether from a management or policy and procedure standpoint. That was looked at carefully.”

The transition is now the responsibility of the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Department. An extension through 2018, meant to provide time to make other arrangements, is now drawing to a close. Fitzpatrick said although both parties had agreed to have ongoing meetings to plan the transition, “That was supposed to begin last winter. And we haven’t met since.”

Fitzpatrick expressed concern about why the changes were proposed in the first place. “This relationship has been going on … at a relatively low cost to county taxpayers. It’s difficult to find a reason why you would want to change it. It’s really a life/safety issue. Especially when you look at how many visitors we get … This town can swell to 6,000 people, so there is a need for good coverage at this end [of the valley]. The [balance is the] level of service we can provide versus the cost for the taxpayers.”

According to Besecker, the budget is in place with an annual increase in cost to the county estimated between $300,000 and $400,000. This accounts for a sub-station rental, patrol cars, and additional personnel. The Sheriff’s Department determined it would need four more officers to cover the larger area, and added the first in 2018. Three more hires are in process, with two graduating from the field training academy, and one more beginning the program.

“We won’t have a specific patrol division that will focus on that region … We will be sending everyone through all areas,” said Besecker. He said his department has already begun patrolling the area, getting familiar with its different needs and aspects.

Plans to establish a substation have not yet been finalized but the sheriff expects to have an answer to that in the next two weeks. The department tried leasing space from the town of Crested Butte, specifically the Old Rock jail at Second Street and Elk Avenue, but Besecker rescinded his request when the Crested Butte Town Council expressed hesitation. Undersheriff Mark Mykol said the county still hopes to find a space in the town of Crested Butte.

Besecker has decided not to run for re-election in the fall, but said Mykol, who is running for the office in November, has worked with him closely on the arrangement.

“There seems to be some misconception that the sheriff’s office is doing this,” said Mykol. “This was voted unanimously by the county commissioners. They want to see county patrol cars in that area, and we have to support their position … It’s sheriff’s office jurisdiction and it’s our responsibility to patrol all of Gunnison County.”

County Commissioner John Messner said that to the contrary, “We actually don’t have that purview over the sheriff’s jurisdiction; he is an independently elected official…the sheriff made a reasonable budget request regarding his plan, so it made sense that we approve it.”

Mykol said the likely reason for the previous arrangement was that in the 1980s it wasn’t as busy in the northern corridor. “Now we have so many more kids enrolled in the school. Back in those days it was mostly ranch land. But we get the tourists, we get the summer, the winter. It’s become a pretty busy place.”

Mykol does not foresee a great deal of adjustment period, especially since the Sheriff’s Department has been running patrollers in the area increasingly for several months. “The only thing that is going to change is the four more officers, and that we are going to be the ‘primary’ in the incident report if there is one to do,” he said.

The potential for overlap between the two agencies is not a concern, said Besecker. “As far as our collaborative relationship, we want to continue that. We can help them and they can help us too from time to time,” said Besecker. “I think that both agencies with Crested Butte—the town and the mountain—are tasked with holding high standards.”

Yet Fitzpatrick expressed doubt about the sheriff’s office getting fully outfitted and familiarized for the transition, as well as planning for the true cost of equipment. “When you can get this level of service for as little as they have paid, why would you want to create more government?” he said.

The other candidate for sheriff, John Gallowich, could not be reached for comment due to communication issues.

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