Back the badge

Retired Delta County Sheriff Fred McKee and wife Julie represent the Back the Badge ballot measure at the annual Mountain Harvest Festival Chili Cook-off at Paonia Town Park. Also known as Measure 1A, law enforcement agencies throughout Delta County are asking voters to approve a county-wide 1% sales tax increase to support law enforcement efforts.

Delta County’s five law enforcement agencies are asking voters to show their support on Nov. 5 by approving a countywide 1% sales tax increase.

A collaboration between the Delta County Sheriff’s Office and four municipal law enforcement agencies, Measure 1A, also called the Delta County Public Safety Improvements Sales Tax, or “Back the Badge,” would provide funding to agencies to hire, train and equip safety personnel, conduct and prepare criminal investigations, address costs at the Delta County detention facility and dispatch center and other costs related to public safety.

It would improve school safety through officer response training and fund school resource officers where appropriate; improve emergency and non-emergency response times; and increase proactive law enforcement services through drug investigations, law enforcement presence and traffic enforcement.

The tax would generate approximately $2.9 million annually for public safety needs. Of that revenue, 48%, or approximately $1.392 million annually would go to the Sheriff’s Office, 31%, or $899,000 to the Delta Police Department; and 7% ($203,000 annually) to the Cedaredge and Paonia police departments and Hotchkiss Marshal’s Office.

Passage would increase the total county sales tax collected on most items from 4.9% to 5.9%, Delta, Cedaredge, Crawford and Hotchkiss sales tax rates would all increase from 6.9% to 7.9%, and Paonia’s sales tax rate would rise from 7.9% to 8.9%.

The proposed tax increase is in response to growing crime rates across the county. Improving officer response time and presence are both necessary in meeting today’s demands, said Sheriff Mark Taylor. Across the board, Delta County Dispatch is experiencing increases in call volumes.

Staffing levels aren’t keeping up. Currently, the Sheriff’s Office has three or four deputies to patrol 1,140 square miles of unincorporated Delta County. Between Jan. 1-Sept. 10, 2019, the agency responded to 3,167 calls compared to 2,609 during the same time period in 2018. During that same time frame, the average response time in 2019 was 35.34 minutes, compared to 30.27 minutes in 2018.

From 2017 to 2018, Delta County experienced an increase in felony court cases of 47.4%, from 270 cases to 398, and an increase of 54.5 % in juvenile delinquency cases, from 22 to 34 cases. Serious crime calls, which often involve illegal drugs, are also increasing. From Jan. 1-Sept. 10, 2018 to the same time frame in 2019, said Taylor, call numbers increased from 2,218 to 2,754.

“We need to let people know that Delta County is rapidly changing and we need to keep up with it. It all comes down to staffing levels,” said Taylor. A major complaint from the public is that people don’t see deputies patrolling their neighborhood, he added. “One thing we can’t put into statistics is the number of crimes deterred when a criminal sees a deputy in a neighborhood. We need more cops on the street.”

The Seventh Judicial District has seen case numbers increase across all seven counties. In Delta County, violent crime cases have trended upward for at least the past five years, said District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller. “This is not a one-year blip,” said Hotsenpiller, nor is it unique to Delta County. “It’s happening everywhere.” Colorado Bureau of Investigation data released in August shows a statewide 7.95% rise in violent crimes in 2018, though murders decreased by just over 3%.

A new state law going into effect next March will, in part, lower possession of small amounts of Schedule I and II drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines from a felony to a misdemeanor. Exactly how that will affect local law enforcement is unclear, but “a large majority of calls involve meth and heroin” and other illicit drugs, said Taylor. “It’s extremely concerning to me that we’re decriminalizing those drugs.”

It’s important for communities to take control of their future by taking control of how they respond to calls, said Hotsenpiller. A program started in Delta and Montrose counties in 2018, the co-responder program partners law enforcement officers with a mental health expert trained to de-escalate situations and ensure that individuals get the mental health services and treatment they need. Once the situation is stabilized, said Taylor, the deputy can begin to process all the information.

Like Montrose, Delta County currently has just one co-responder available. While sales tax revenue won’t be earmarked for mental health professionals, it will provide for officer training. Recently, said Taylor, sheriff’s deputies underwent critical incident training that will allow them to be better prepared for mental health-related and other more serious calls.

Hotsenpiller said he’s pleased to see all the agencies working together toward a goal of improving services. He saw that collaborative spirit with Montrose Police Sgt. Dave Kinterknecht, who was shot and killed in 2009 while responding to a domestic violence incident; and with the recent passing of 19-year Delta Police Department veteran Sgt. Rdean Young. In both incidents, outside agencies offered to cover shifts and help with other services.

Taylor said during the campaign he has visited with citizens in every community in the county. From what he’s heard, there is wide support for the tax. “We don’t know what people will do with their ballots,” he said. “But it sounds super positive.”

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