Parties come to terms on policing agreement
The players may change, but authorities say the law enforcement presence in the unincorporated county at the north end of the valley will not.
If all goes as planned, Mt. Crested Butte Police Department — which has served as the primary law enforcement agency in the area for decades — will be replaced by the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office in the coming year.
County leaders previously offered to extend the current contract with Mt. Crested Butte for an additional six months after it ends Dec. 31. That was despite Mt. Crested Butte leaders’ request for a three-year extension.
In the end, the town and the county decided to meet closer to the middle. County leaders and town officials approved a one-year extension of the contract Tuesday, with the understanding that full authority for patrolling will transition to the Sheriff’s Office during that time frame.
The parties are expected to draft a memorandum of understanding in coming weeks that includes details about exactly how the transition will occur. Next year, Mt. Crested Butte will receive $91,000 from the county for its services — the same amount of money the town will pay in “dispatch fees” based on call volume in the jurisdiction.
By way of comparison, Mt. Crested Butte received $138,644 this year for the long-standing contract.
Gunnison County Sheriff Rick Besecker indicated he’s already in the process of hiring and training four new deputies — allowing for one officer to be on duty at a time for most of the day.
Also, Besecker said Tuesday that he’s pursuing a “home” for his officers at the north end of the valley — and is currently exploring options for an office in Crested Butte or Crested Butte South.
In total, the Sheriff’s Office’s operational expenses, approved Friday by commissioners as part of the larger county budget, are set to increase by about $192,000 in 2018 over this year.
While talks of Mt. Crested Butte’s contract coming to an end have been ongoing for years, town leaders announced surprise in recent weeks at county leaders pushing for a hasty divorce. Uncertainty over the future of law enforcement has sparked concern — even spurring the circulation of a petition in recent weeks to maintain the contract with Mt. Crested Butte.
Still, county leaders maintain that the new arrangement will mean more officers patrolling the area — not fewer. That’s because Mt. Crested Butte leaders have said they don’t plan to reduce the size of their current eight-officer department — even after the contract is terminated.
Besecker has said the reason for his interest in discontinuing the contract is for his office to take “a more direct responsibility to sheriff’s obligations as it relates to public safety and law enforcement presence in that area,” particularly as needs at the north end of the valley have “grown considerably as new homes are built.”
County leaders also have stated qualms over liability associated with the current arrangement — even questioning Tuesday whether language could be added to the contract extension that would absolve the Sheriff’s Office.
“I don’t know that there is anything that a lawyer can craft that can be a full absolution or protection from liability,” said County Attorney David Baumgarten. “I mean, we can work on it.”
In the end, commissioners agreed that the one-year extension seemed to offer the greatest opportunity to appease all parties.
“I don’t want to go forward with this back and forth posturing. I’m over that,” said Commissioner John Messner.
Besecker offered that “good faith” communication with Mt. Crested Butte Police Chief Nate Stepanek would set the stage for an operational plan that carries out the transition.
“My biggest concern is we get a year from now and we’re right back where we are now and we keep doing this,” said Commissioner Jonathan Houck. “I don’t want to be in a position where somebody has to lay off officers.”
Mt. Crested Butte Mayor Todd Barnes voiced a similar concern later Tuesday during a council meeting attended by County Commissioner Phil Chamberland and Besecker.
Barnes asked for details of the transition “so that we don’t have this 10-month repeat ... that this is going to be the last year” for the contract.
Town Attorney Kathleen Fogo assured that those details would be included in the memorandum of understanding between the two parties.
Ultimately, councilors expressed optimism in the transition following tensions between the county and town in recent weeks over the arrangement.
“I’m just really glad that we talked, and we’re talking,” said Councilman Ken Lodovico.
“I just wish it hadn’t taken until the last meeting of the year,” added Councilwoman Janet Farmer.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)