by Gail Binkly | March 1, 2014 5:03 pm
But Spruell says expenditure is completely appropriate
Former Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace is questioning a recent decision by the county commissioners and current Sheriff Dennis Spruell to use funds from the local Law Enforcement Authority to pay for new sheriff ’s vehicles.
On Jan. 27, the commissioners agreed to allow the use of $800,000 in funds from the authority to pay for the lease of 18 vehicles for the sheriff ’s office. Spruell said the current fleet is aging and in bad need of replacement. In a letter to area media, Wallace said the commissioners’ decision was “a true shame” because the funds were not intended to be used for such general purposes.
Spruell, however, disagreed and said the decision was entirely appropriate. “It’s fine. There’s no issue with it,” he told the Free Press.
Wallace, who was sheriff from 2005 through 2011, oversaw the passage of a ballot question in 2007 that created the Law Enforcement Authority, a special taxing entity covering only the unincorporated areas of the county (areas outside the municipalities).
The creation of such authorities is allowed under state statute; they are different from special districts and are overseen by the county commissioners.
The ballot measure sought a 1.45-mill levy expected to generate approximately $509,400 per year. At the time, Wallace said the money would be used to hire five additional patrol deputies for rural areas and increase salaries for POST-certified deputies (those certified under the Peace Officer Training and Standards program – not jail deputies) to bring them up to the state median salary for such jobs. In the future, the money was to be used to add deputies as needed, keep salaries competitive, and maintain equipment.
But it was not to be used for general purposes by the sheriff ’s office, because that might help fund law enforcement in the municipalities, when city-dwellers aren’t paying the additional tax, Wallace told the Free Press in a phone interview. For instance, LEA monies weren’t to be used to fund anything connected with the detention center, “because the jail may have people in it from the towns,” Wallace said.
“The money was designed so the people paying for the LEA were the ones receiving the benefits,” he said.
When he was sheriff, Wallace said, his office was careful to keep the funds separate and to keep track of what they were used for. Vehicles, guns, radios and other equipment paid for by the authority were to be used by the deputies whose salaries were paid by the fund, and were listed separately by serial number or other identifying information.
But over time, as personnel changed, the LEA monies began to be used for broader purposes.
“What happened is they started using it for more general-purpose items,” Wallace said – for example, to purchase a copy machine for the sheriff ’s office last year.
Wallace said it would have been acceptable to put LEA funds toward the copier, but not to fund it entirely from the authority. “You could use both funds [LEA and general] if you could determine the percentage, such as 40 percent LEA,” he said.
He likewise said it would be fine to use the fund to pay for replacing LEA vehicles, but not others that might be used for purposes involving the jail or the towns. “That’s wrong because people in the unincorporated areas are paying an additional tax,” he said.
“Maybe I’m a stickler, but I just don’t like doing those things. I guess it’s pretty common with people moving on and new people coming in that things change a bit, but it’s just wrong for me.”
Since 2007, the county has a new attorney and administrator as well as a new sheriff, plus two new commissioners.
Spruell, however, said while he can understand how people might think the authority should pay only for services in the unincorporated areas, it’s impossible to always keep things separate.
The town of Dolores contracts with the sheriff ’s office to provide law-enforcement services there. The city of Cortez has its own police force, but the sheriff ’s office will make stops in Cortez if deputies are driving through and spot an offense. The town of Mancos has its own marshal’s office. The sheriff ’s office provides backup and assistance in the municipalities when requested, as it does occasionally on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation.
“We pay for deputies through the LEA,” Spruell said. “Would the community expect us to stop at the city limits if they are asking for help, because the deputy is an LEA agent? Our purpose is to be in the unincorporated parts of Montezuma County, but there’s no invisible line that says we can’t assist municipalities with this equipment.
“I don’t know how you would have law enforcement exclusively that stops at the city limit. It would be improbable that because you have an LEA car, you would stop at the city-limit sign.”
Law-enforcement authorities are provided for in state statutes under Title 30, Article 11, Part 4. Such an authority is defined as “a taxing unit which may be created by a county in this state for the purpose of providing additional law enforcement by the county sheriff to the residents of the developed or developing unincorporated area of the county.”
The state statutes don’t delineate precisely how money levied by an authority is to be used.
The ballot question passed by Montezuma County voters in November 2007 called for the authority to be created “in all of the unincorporated areas of Montezuma County for the purpose of providing additional law enforcement services in said areas. . .restricting said revenues and expenditures thereof to said purposes including all necessary or incidental costs related thereto. . . .
When Spruell and Undersheriff Lynda Carter came before the county commissioners on Jan. 27 to seek funding for new vehicles, they said the authority had brought in more than $800,000 in revenue in 2013. The commissioners then asked attorney John Baxter whether it was appropriate to use LEA funds in that way.
Baxter said it appeared that the purposes for which the money could be used were “very broad” and that it could be used for almost anything, including lawsuits.
On the other hand, he added, the commissioners who passed the resolution supporting the authority might have limited its use to specific purposes. At that point, Spruell left to obtain a copy of the resolution, and after viewing it later, the commissioners voted to approve the expenditure.
But Wallace maintained that using the fund to pay for items to be used county-wide runs contrary to the promises made to the citizens who passed the authority.
“I think the citizens just need to know what those funds will be used for, because if they’re not going to be used the way they were intended, they should go back and change the law,” he said. He suggested the county could dissolve the LEA and seek passage of a county-wide sales tax to support law enforcement.
Editor’s note: The following is the text of a letter to the editor from former Sheriff Gerald Wallace: It is a true shame that the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) who also act as the Law Enforcement Authority (LEA) Board of Directors have agreed to fund 100 percent of the $800,000 for 14 vehicles for the Sheriff ’s Office out of the LEA fund.
The LEA is funded 100 percent by taxes paid ONLY by those property owners in the unincorporated areas of Montezuma County. The intent of the tax was to put more officers out in the rural area to help deter crime. Also POST-certified deputies received a pay increase to bring them more in line with other agencies of the same size. Hence positions such as the Agricultural Officer were created.
The statement in the Cortez Journal (Feb. 4, 2014) …..“Collected from property taxes, Law Enforcement Authority funds were appropriated to the Sheriff ’s Office for any use in non-incorporated areas” is absolutely false.
Those funds cannot be used for just “any” use. There were three main priorities established in 2007 and none of them allowed using the LEA funds to supplant the county general fund and the “supplanting question” was specifically addressed in detail at that time.
In the current decision had the LEA board chosen to split the purchase of the 14 vehicles with 10 being paid out of General Fund dollars and 4 from the LEA fund, that may have been a valid use under the LEA agreement, depending on which vehicles were paid for by each fund., i.e., jail vehicles should be purchased from general fund dollars and likewise LEA officers paid 100 percent by the LEA should be in LEA paid vehicles.
But to purchase all 14 vehicles where the majority of those are being used for non LEA services spits in the face of the voters that passed that ballot measure back in 2007. I apologize to all of those voters that supported that ballot measure because had I known that those funds today would be abused in the way that they are, I would never have proposed the LEA proposition and fought so hard for the positive benefits it was designed to achieve and did achieve in those first years . The cure for this problem is simple, if the current Sheriff or the LEA board cannot or chooses not to follow the original intent and agreements, then at the next election the LEA voters (property owners in unincorporated Montezuma County) should vote to disbandon the LEA and its funding mechanism, in which case those current funds would be returned to the property owners within the LEA authority.
The Commissioners under current statute have the option to ask “ALL” the voters in Montezuma County if they would support a general tax for law enforcement. This would at least be equitable for all and then it could be used for “any “ law enforcement purpose.
Montezuma Sheriff (2005 until 2011)
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