Montrose, CO – A shooting on North Mesa Avenue, multiple DUI arrests, drunken fistfights and a stolen handgun kept police officers struggling to keep up last Friday night. City councilors heard these reports during their work session Monday morning and pledged their support to fund additional police officers, but said more citizen involvement is needed before any possible tax increase vote could take place.
The council's consensus is to delay a proposed Public Safety Sales Tax, PSST, increase until next year while working on the current 2019 budget to find funds to further support essential police operations to combat crime within the city.
Councilors asked city staff to draft a resolution to create a citizen advisory board to study the police department's issue of underfunding and understaffing.
Councilors sat and silently listened as Sgt. Courtney Jones delivered a report from last Friday night, describing officers as they raced from call-to-call. The reports varied from DUI arrests to the investigation of a shooting on North Mesa Avenue. Officers there found six, 9mm bullet casings in the street. Police Chief Tom Chinn told the council the shooting is most likely drug-related.
"I held over the officers from the Bridges concert, and we still did not have enough coverage to properly handle all these calls for service," Sgt. Jones said, paraphrasing an emailed Friday night shift briefing from Sgt. Larry Witte.
Between the lines, these reports serve as pleas to fund additional officers, equipment, and training. Currently, the Montrose Police Department fields six or fewer officers on any given shift. As a result, officers spend the majority of their time reacting to calls for service, rather than investigating and preventing crime before it occurs.
City Manager Bill Bell said the department has had to "do more with less" and become more creative with officer's schedules. Bell described the police headquarters as "bursting at the seams.” To hire 13 more officers, Bell said, the city should find a space for them to work in.
Councilors had debated for over two months to pursue a PSST this fall to fund up to 15 more police department personnel and build a new police headquarters. The funding would provide for 13 additional officers, which would take the city's sworn officer count from 42 to 55. The two other staff members would serve in support and legal service roles.
Bell said in comparison, the City of Durango with a thousand fewer residents, has 55 sworn officers to Montrose’s 42. Bell said, citing police data, officers in Montrose respond to more calls than officers in Durango. Bell said the city since 2011 has been increasing the police budget each year and increasing salaries for its police officers to make working in Montrose more attractive.
Bell said the initial PSST proposal was a .75-percent sales tax increase to fund more officers and build a new police headquarters. He told the council that increase was viewed as too high, and the ballot language could be too confusing for some residents to understand. Bell said city staff adjusted the rate down to .45, or, .5 for a possible PSST.
With the deadline weeks away to notify the Montrose County Clerk's office of a ballot initiative, councilors felt there wasn't enough time to educate the public and gain their support.
Mayor Roy Anderson said he wanted to "slow the process down to get more community input" on the issue.
"We probably have one shot at this," Anderson said of a possible ballot initiative.
Councilor Barbara Bynum said the citizen advisory board should be appointed by the City Council to study the department's crime and staffing data, and deliver recommendations back to the council.
Bynum said the city should host a series of larger public meetings to gather citizen input on a possible tax increase. Councilor Doug Glaspell said city staff needed to work to educate residents on misinformation circulating in public.
For example, Glaspell said, the city does not have a mill levy property tax, so funding from city residents could not come from a property tax increase but could come from a sales tax increase.
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