Budget pushback: County’s efforts to slash spending raise concerns about sheriff’s funding

Falling revenues have led the Montezuma County commissioners to shrink the budgets of many departments countywide.

But a number of people are questioning the wisdom of cutting the budget of the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office at a time when the area faces increased incursions by drug cartels as well as ever-growing incidenc­es of theft, assault, and domestic violence.

At a special meeting on Dec. 28, despite criticism from a number of citizens and a request from Sheriff Steve Nowlin not to approve the sheriff’s and detention center’s budgets, the commissioners voted unani­mously to pass the 2024 budget they had crafted – which eliminates a number of cur­rently unfilled positions in the MCSO.

“I understand cuts, and there’s only so much of a piece of the pie that I get,” com­mented Sheriff Steve Nowlin in a phone interview with the Four Corners Free Press in mid-January. “It just didn’t need to be such a thin piece.

“This is a 24/7 operation. Looking at the budget for 2024, I don’t know how I’m going to be able to do it, but I’ll try.”

Declining revenues necessitate the cuts, the commissioners and County Administra­tor Travis Anderson have said repeatedly.

“The general fund continues to be in a def­icit,” Anderson said at the special meeting.

At present the county is looking at about $16.4 million in revenues but about $17.2 million in expenditures, he told the Free Press in a phone interview.

Anderson said the county will lose about $450,000 across all the agencies that fall un­der the general fund.

Lower property taxes

At the Dec. 28 meeting, both he and Com­mission Chair Jim Candelaria blamed actions by the Colorado State Legislature for much of the problem.

In November 2023, Colorado voters re­jected Proposition HH, a ballot proposal that would have provided average homeown­ers some relief from property taxes. Those are expected to rise sharply because of an improving economy as well as the repeal in 2020 of the Gallagher Amendment, which held down residential property taxes.

When Proposition HH failed, the legisla­ture in a special session reduced the residen­tial property-tax assessment rate and also said that $55,000 of home values is exempt from taxation.

“This is a big decrease to our budget,” Candelaria said. He said last year, the coun­ty’s revenues were $18.63 million.

“We keep going backwards. Our expendi­tures are higher, our insurance is through the roof. We have to stay within a budget.”

Commissioner Kent Lindsay commented that carbon-dioxide producer Kinder Mor­gan, which traditionally has provided about half of the county’s property-tax revenues, is extracting less carbon dioxide, also leading to declining monies.

“Kinder Morgan is off 18 percent. It was off 36 percent two years ago,” Lindsay said. “I don’t see Kinder Morgan coming back on line with what they had.

“We became dependent on it. We used that money. It did all of our departments some good. We’re seeing reductions in our prop­erty taxes. Our only out is to ask for a sales tax in 2024. . . this is where the buck stops and we have to make cuts we don’t want to make.”

Lindsay continued, “We don’t want to cut officers. And I’d like to see every road in Montezuma County paved, but just like you, we have a checkbook and that checkbook is drying up fast.”


The result has been a cutback in most county departments’ budgets as well as a shuffling of funds from some budgets to others.

At the Dec. 28 meeting, Anderson listed the cuts or increases for different depart­ments. For instance, natural resources was cut about 36 percent, administration nearly 10 percent, and a clean-up fund about 44 percent.

“Administration is not getting a $40,000 and $50,000 raise,” Anderson said in refer­ence to some accusations during the public-comment period. ”We’re getting the 5 per­cent everybody else is getting.”

He said the commissioners’ budget rose 3.7 percent because of dues, travel and train­ing, the GIS department’s increased 6.5 per­cent due to maintenance contracts and re­quired training, and the elections budget was up nearly 10 percent because of the 2024 election.

The county’s noxious-weed and economic-development departments have been com­pletely revamped, with the directors of both of those departments laid off. However, it has been the cutting of the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office’s budget that has raised the most public concern and pushback.

“Law enforcement is the stability of this county, it’s the foundation of a good home,” Edward Anderson told the commission­ers during public comment at their Dec. 19 meeting.

“For administrators to even think about cutting it, I think they should cut their wag­es, not raise their wages. It’s time for us as a whole to maybe pay more taxes to support that. I know it’s not what people want to hear but I think it’s a real thing. . . My wife had a passion for the invasive-weed unit and was let go. You had an economic developer that was let go. . . It’s just like the weeds in your yard, if you don’t maintain it, it’s going to get out of control. Your budget is going to be that.”

And at the Dec. 28 meeting, Sheriff De­tective Victor Galarza, a member of the MCSO for 12 years who said he has “paid in blood, sweat and tears for the honor to serve and protect the place I call home,” told the board that “the rise of violent crime, felony assaults on peace officers in our county and the removal of several positions and budget cuts within our agency – this will only place our law-enforcement officers in danger as well as the rest of the county.”

On Nov. 29, 2023, Cortez Police Sgt. Mi­chael Moran was shot and killed by a man during a traffic stoop.

Galarza, a member of the Montezuma-Cortez Drug Investigation Team, “one of the smallest drug task forces in the state,” said they are pursuing drug traffickers who “are taking a foothold in our county, who are trafficking not hundreds, not thousands, but tens of thousands of Fentanyl pills and ki­los of crystal methamphetamine and several other illegal substances.

“With drug trafficking comes an array of other felony crimes,” Galarza said. “Let me remind you, one Fentanyl pill can kill.

“By removing full-time positions and cut­ting our budget, this body of elected officials will hamper our ability to combat this poison from coming into the place we call home.”

Galarza said sheriff’s employees have very low salaries compared to other law-enforce­ment agencies within the state and region, as well as no real retirement benefits. “And now our jobs are about to get even more danger­ous with these cuts. The question is, why would we stay?”

Eric Fisher, another county resident, said, “Our crime rate is at an all-time high and it’s scary to think we’re going to take the war­riors off the street that fight that crime.”

Susan Barritt of Cortez said crime and drugs have gotten so much worse, “I don’t know how you can think of getting rid of some of the officers. They’re doing a great job and putting their life on the line for us and they all deserve a pay raise.”

Dena Guttridge of Cortez pleaded with the commissioners not to approve the bud­get as it was presented.

“I have three of my children in law en­forcement in Cortez,” Guttridge said. “Mon­tezuma County covers over 2,000 square miles. Two officers at a time are trying to patrol that area. Cutting those positions is going to put us all in danger. . . . This is not a good plan.”

No firings

“This is always a tough time and it’s always hard to make decisions like this,” Commis­sioner Gerald Koppenhafer responded at the Dec. 28 meeting, “but we’ve got a lot of other positions in this county that have to be taken care of also. Several of these [sheriff’s office] positions were never filled to begin, with so it’s not like we’re cutting somebody’s job – we didn’t fire anybody.”

Candelaria echoed that. “Nobody lost their jobs, so if that’s what’s being spread out there – no one in the sheriff’s office lost their jobs. Grant-funded positions have been lost, that is absolutely correct. With the reductions in the budget there are things that have to be cut. . . We can’t keep spending more than what we have. We’re already going almost $1 million into reserves to provide what we have right now.”

In 2019, the commissioners at the time pulled $3.7 million from reserves and allot­ted it to the Road and Bridge Department to pave more county roads.

Koppenhafer continued, “You think we want to take officers off? We don’t. I drive all over the place doing veterinary work and stuff so I see how many deputies are out pa­trolling in other counties around this area. We’ve got as many right here as any place in this whole Four Corners area.”

However, Nowlin told the Free Press he doesn’t believe that’s true.

A sales tax?

The commissioners have talked about put­ting a proposal for a “public-safety sales tax” on the November 2024 ballot. It would pro­vide money for the sheriff’s office, detention center and drug task force, the board said at a Jan. 9 meeting.

Nowlin told the Free Press he isn’t sure whether such a tax would pass or, if it did, how much it would help.

“They couldn’t get a general sales tax passed,” he said, in reference to past county proposals that failed at the ballot. He add­ed that the language of any proposal for a public-safety sales tax would need to be very specific about where the money can go and who decides that.

“This tax needs to spell out exactly what the sheriff’s office will receive. It has to be stated that the sheriff gets to allot that mon­ey into the line items – not the administrator or commissioners.”

Nowlin said the issue is not just cutting positions, it’s “de-funding.

The sheriff is elected directly by the vot­ers, but county commissioners approve the sheriff’s budget. (Nowlin was first elected in 2013 and is serving his third term.) Under state statutes, the sheriff can hire as many deputies as needed and can set their salaries as well, but those budgets have to be ap­proved by the county commissioners.

Nowlin said the county has taken money from some of the numerous funds his of­fice handles and shifted them into other funds, often grabbing money that Nowlin had worked to save and carry over from year to year.

He cited the budget for pretrial services as an example. The pretrial program keeps defendants who are awaiting trial out of the detention center, he explained. “They pay $50 to be on pretrial until adjudicated. Judges put them on it generally if they are accused of lower felonies and misdemeanors.” Two deputies monitor the pretrial clients, which may mean drug-testing, ankle monitoring, or other things. The MCSO has had as many as 300 people on pretrial at a time, Nowlin said.

He said in the past he was able to get the commission to agree that “whatever the pre­trial annual intake was for the county, I would develop a budget that would include over­time, training, vehicle expenses, and operat­ing. It would carry over into the next year.”

In 2022, the pretrial budget was $55,205, he said. The unexpended amount for that year was $35,430, “so there wasn’t a lot that was spent and it carried over in 2023. In 2023 I had $69,077 in there – $15,000 set aside for training, $44,000 for operating, and $10,000 for vehicle expenses. That just rolls over starting in January.”

However, in the 2024 budget, he said, “That got cut. The commissioners poured it into the detentions budget. They moved training, operation and vehicle expenses into the detentions budget.

“I was saving money. That went away.”

Unsigned contract

Another major issue, Nowlin told the Free Press, was the MCSO’s proposed contract with the Town of Dolores. Unlike the Town of Mancos, Dolores does not have its own marshal’s office to provide law enforcement but has traditionally contracted with the MCSO to cover the town, paying money on top of what the MCSO receives from prop­erty taxes.

But that has apparently fallen apart.

At the Nov. 27, 2023, meeting of the Do­lores Town Board, Nowlin said over the past nine years he and the town had been able to work together, that he had tried to keep costs as minimal as possible when presenting them with a budget every year.

“That ended on January 1st of this year,” he told them.

The county’s budget committee, which consists of Administrator Anderson, Com­missioner Candelaria, and Chief Finance Of­ficer Faedra Grubb, believed that the town was not paying the MCSO enough, Nowlin said. He told the Dolores Town Board that county officials didn’t seem to understand that the county was not subsidizing the town.

“We explained that whether there was a contract or not, the sheriff by law, statute, has to provide service to the county,” Nowlin told the town board.

He said he told the budget committee that, “Even if we had no contract, I still have to provide services to the people in that town. I am required to do that by law. They pay prop­erty taxes, so this money was on top of that to assist the sheriff’s office.”

But he said the discussion “went south.”

“I’m sorry,” he told the town board. “I work for the people, I don’t work for the county or county administrator or a board. I work for everybody. . . I can’t change my ethical values, I can’t. I’ve been a professional peace officer for 48 years.”

In August 2023, he said, the Dolores Town Board unanimously passed the proposed contract between the MCSO and town, but when he submitted it to the commission­ers for approval, “because it didn’t have the amount that was wanted, there were more discussions, and things have changed.”

He said the budget he presented was about $250,000, plus additional money for deputies to serve at special events. The county, howev­er, wanted much more. “I heard the $375,000 figure,” Nowlin said.

“I cannot come to you and look you in the face and tell you this is right,” Nowlin told the board on Nov. 27.

“I’m not going anywhere. They’re cutting FTEs [full-time equivalencies}, they’re cut­ting deputies, but we’re still going to be here to do our job. . . .I am not going to abandon this town no matter what.”

The Town Board then tabled the county’s proposed contract with the MCSO instead of signing it.

Nowlin also told the Free Press there have been changes in the contract with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Since gaming was legalized in Colorado, the counties where gaming is present are required to have a contract with the local sheriff’s office. Nowlin said the tribe paid $75,000 annually to the MCSO.

“That went away,” he said, because the county put the money into the general fund.

“I still provide services out there,” Nowlin told the Dolores Town Board on Nov. 27. “I always will. They are part of our community whether anybody likes it or not, whether they pay taxes or not – I don’t really care. Our citi­zens are out there, Native and non-Native, tribal and non tribal.”

Transparency concerns

Even as the MCSO’s budget goes down, calls for service continue to rise by approxi­mately 1,000 every year, Nowlin said. There were 19,264 calls in 2023. Only two or three deputies are available to cover the county at any time.

The MCSO currently has 35 FTE posi­tions on the patrol side and 35 in detention, Nowlin said.

“Our drug task force is doing a fantastic job with the limited detectives I have there,” he said. “We just put 15 defendants into federal prison for trafficking and posses­sion. Two were cartel members. These are all organized-crime operations that are bringing these drugs in.”

Nowlin said there has been a lack of trans­parency on the part of the county, especially this year. He said he never received any of­ficial notice of how many positions would be cut from his department – “I heard from six to 11” – and never had a meeting with the commissioners.

“Nothing has been transparent about any of this. I can only do what I can do.”

The MCSO receives money from the Law Enforcement Authority, which assesses a small additional mill levy on residents and businesses in the unincorporated areas of the county.

The LEA budget was geared to pay the salaries of additional deputies and has been used for equipment and other needs.

“The funds were to pay five deputies’ sala­ries,” Nowlin said. “But now they have taken full-time deputy positions in the sheriff’s budget and moved them into LEA. Twelve deputies are paid out of LEA now. Last year we needed medical providers in the jail because of changes in state statute – we’re not doctors and nurses – that was $340,000. They took that out of LEA last year. The only reason there was that money in LEA was because I saved that money.

“The jail does not belong to the sheriff’s office, it belongs to the county, so they put that into the detention budget.”

Down from $2.2 million

Anderson told the Free Press that the coun­ty is doing its best to support the sheriff and did make sure it did not cut positions that were already filled.

“We budgeted for current positions he had available at the time,” Anderson said. “The overages were unfilled.”

In addition, he said, “We worked hard to get some raises for them.”

The county is also working now to develop the proposal for a public-safety sales tax.

He said it would not be good to pull ad­ditional money out of reserves because the county needs to keep enough money there in case of really dire emergencies, “like if we have another 2008,” he said.

Anderson said the finance committee met with each department when working out the budget. “They gave presentations. Some of them we met with multiple times, knowing this year would be a difficult year, based on what the state was doing with property tax­es.”

Following the initial presentations from all the departments, Anderson said, the fig­ure that would have had to be taken from reserves was $2.2 million. “We can’t sustain that,” he said. “The commissioners wanted to get it around $1 million. We worked to get that to a manageable level.”

County employees did receive 5 percent raises across the board to keep pace with in­flation, he said.

Anderson noted that 73 percent of Mon­tezuma County is tribal or public land, and the PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) money the county geets from the federal govern­ment for public land is only about $175,000 a year.

He said the two most significant factors af­fecting county revenues are indeed the legis­lature’s actions to reduce property taxes and the decline in Kinder Morgan’s production. In addition, he mentioned, inflation is affect­ing expenditures. “Everything costs more.”

‘A young agency’

Nowlin said he is worried about some of his employees leaving to seek better jobs and his being unable to fill their positions. “There’s four I will never be able to replace when they leave. I anticipate several leaving this year.

“Losing people is what’s going to happen. Medical insurance keeps going up and it’s not the top-of-the-line medical providers my employees have. It really costs, especially if you have dependents. The employee pays for that, the county doesn’t.

“I have a young agency. That costs. A lot of them can’t afford the insurance. They have to either try and get assistance from Social Services or CHP [Child Health Plan]. We can’t match these other agencies. I did get an increase for the certified deputies and 5 percent for the non-certified, but the medical insurance went up.”

A great majority of employees at the MCSO have already voted to seek collective-bargaining rights that would allow them to negotiate their salaries and benefits, accord­ing to published reports.

Nowlin said he wishes that locals could pay more attention to the budgeting process, but he understands why they don’t.

“It’s really kind of disheartening,” he said. “I just wish people would pay more atten­tion, but we’re all so busy in our lives.”

From 2024, January 2024.