(Las Animas, CO) -- "Las Animas is not Mayberry, I know there's some misconception about that..."
Bent County Undersheriff Wick Turner stood to tell Las Animas City council that in order to keep up with crime rates and deliver acceptable public safety service, there would need to be more money in a contract waiting for approval.
The town of Las Animas contracts with the Bent County Sheriff's office to cover calls for service in the city limits. And with the budget deadline coming up, this month, a special work session tackled ideas on what a sufficient amount of money to pay for that would look like.
Turner mentioned that increased costs to the city would be for wages of staff. He said Bent County is among the lowest in pay in Southeast Colorado. He added that makes hiring and retaining road deputies very challenging. The middle of this year, La Junta increased pay for officers to more than $23 per hour while Bent County is able to pay $18.50 per hour. Turner said Core Civic, the private prison in Las Animas, is offering more than $23 per hour for a corrections officer. The competition has been rough to recruit, Turner furthers. He said at being $5 behind the curve is nearly impossible to hire law enforcement for Bent County.
Added costs to law enforcement this year is the gear required to do the job, such as body cameras, vests, and other essential duty gear.
City Council inquired about the ration of jail staff to inmates and Turner replied as of that time they were staffed at 13 jailers and 20 inmates. The jail inmate number has been as high as 60 in the past year. Turner said soon, they are expecting to accept more inmates and he wants to use this time to make sure that staff are properly trained to handle the larger number expected. "You don't just want to dump them straight into pods."
Turner explained that he has been reluctant to accept more inmates to house from neighboring counties until he knew what the budget would allow. "I didn't want to have 80 inmates in my jail and not have the staff..." Once the budget is finalized, Turner said he will be able to start to accept more inmates. Bent County hosts inmates from neighboring counties who do not have room in their hail. The county is paid for housing the inmates.
Council Member Cassandra Siefkas explained that she was not comfortable renewing a contract with the Sheriff's office until she was able to examine more data on calls for service in the town. Turner said the data could be produced.
County Commissioners Jean Sykes, Chuck Netherton and Kim MacDonnell were all in attendance for the work session and indicated that they need to know this week so they can finalize their budget. The county is expected to do that in their meeting Thursday morning, December 8 at 9am.
Las Animas City council decided to hold another work session where they would make the decision whether or not to renew the contract with the Sheriff's office. The meeting is set for Wednesday, December 7th at 5pm. It will be at the 11th hour since the county is approving their budget the next morning.
In the past, Las Animas City Council has discussed starting a police department for the town. The obstacles brought up at that time were costs, what to do about funding positions, vehicles, gear, training etc.
Undersheriff Turner explained that most of their calls for service, 80 to 90 percent, according to his estimate, are in the town of Las Animas with fewer reported in the county.