Voters will get a chance to decide whether to give the El Paso County Sheriff's Office an additional $16 million annually to hire more jailers and patrol deputies; fund jail repairs; answer growing jail medical and food requirements; and meet other law enforcement needs.
After a three-hour discussion today, county commissioners told staff to prepare a ballot question for the Nov. 6 ballot to raise the county's sales tax by just under a quarter of 1 percent.
The tax hike request comes from Sheriff Terry Maketa. Meanwhile, voters will also mull whether to extend the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority tax first enacted in 2004. It expires in 2014.
Maketa painted a dire picture of his department, noting he expects his medical contract for the jail to increase by up to $800,000 next year. Besides that, since 2007, gasoline has gone up 37 percent, ammunition 30 percent, and crime lab costs, 18 percent, according to his presentation to the county's Citizens Budget Oversight Committee last week.
Issues that have been ignored for years have come to a head, Maketa told commissioners, such as the need for a new industrial-sized dishwasher at the jail and a kettle and ovens to assure utensils are sanitized properly and that food is cooked properly.
"It's been repaired and repaired and repaired for years," he said of the dishwasher. "It's just worn out."
The number of patrol deputies has been the same for 20 years, leaving deputies without backup.
"We're staffed for a time when we almost had no calls for service in the eastern part of the county," he said. "Those days are gone."
But hiring to fill one position means adding six people to cover shifts and for sickness and vacations. Maketa's tax proposal would enable the addition of 120 positions, he said. Those are:
40 patrol deputies
7 records clerks
7 emergency services dispatchers
1 finance clerk
1 HR tech
1 administrative employee
42 detention deputies
8 security techs
2 inmate classification counselors
2 intake release specialists
2 wildland fire managers
1 hazardous materials tech
1 arson investigator
2 emergency services planners
"I'm asking for your support to work with me to find a way to address what I've been talking about for 10 years," Maketa said.
Commissioners acknowledged they've known for years about the sheriff's needs, but simply haven't had the money to fund them. A ballot measure in 2008 that would have raised $75 million annually failed as the recession was setting in.
Maketa said he's tried to be creative through the years, even adding a citizens patrol using volunteers. But volunteers have limitations. Days into the Waldo Canyon Fire, for example, there were wildland fire trucks available but no volunteers to take them out; having already lent much time to the firefighting effort, those volunteers had been called back to their paying jobs.
Part of the sheriff's woes stem from recession-caused budget cuts from 2006 to 2009, when commissioners reduced spending by $45.2 million, finance director Nicola Sapp said.
Several members of the Citizens Budget Oversight Committee spoke in support of Maketa's proposal, but District Attorney Dan May expressed reservations, saying there are mountains of regional law enforcement needs that will go unmet if the tax increase is directed only to the Sheriff's Office.
He noted his office must wait from nine to 12 months to get DNA lab results back from the state, and that there's no lab in southern Colorado. He says officials in Pueblo and Canon City have expressed a desire to work together on that need.
May said the Colorado Springs Police Department also has severe shortages. For example, when two murders happened simultaneously some months ago, the CSPD had to send a sex crimes unit to one of them, because a second major crimes unit wasn't available. And then the CSPD asked Maketa's force to cover calls that night because police lacked personnel to handle it.
Agencies might save money by working together, instead of independently, on training academies, dispatch and evidence storage.
He also noted that budget cuts have caused the city and county to pull out of the District Attorney's Office's economic crime unit, resulting in a sharp downturn in prosecution of economic crime and minor identity theft cases, because "nobody can do it because of budget constraints."
May also noted that if the sheriff's office gains personnel, he will gain more cases. But will he have sufficient budget dollars to handle the caseload? Perhaps not.
"The No. 1 purpose of government is public safety," he said. "There are needs throughout the region in law enforcement."
Anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce spoke against any tax increase, saying "that's an awful lot of money to suck out of the economy in a recession."
He also said the measure, which would sunset in eight years unless voters renewed it, is "just a foot in the door," similar to the PPRTA road and bridge tax.
To which Commissioner Sallie Clark said, "Are you suggesting this should be an ongoing tax?"
Bruce: "If I'm asked if I want to be poisoned or strangled, my answer is neither." He also questioned if 10 weeks is enough time to mount a campaign.
"I think you've made a good case," Clark said.
Commissioner Amy Lathen called for the ballot measure to contain "very specific items" identified for funding, and told Maketa, "You've been elected three times, and you're asking for access to the people."
Commissioners indicated they will provide him with that access by placing a measure on the ballot on Thursday during their 9 a.m. meeting at Centennial Hall. Commissioner Darryl Glenn, who opposes putting the issue on the ballot, was doing a ride-along with the Black Forest Fire Department this morning and didn't attend the meeting.
If commissioners vote Thursday to place the tax hike on the ballot, a second reading and vote would take place Sept. 4.