Last week, El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton voted in favor of letting residents vote on a tax increase for the county sheriff's office. But she's not convinced the increase, which would generate approximately $16 million in sales and use funds annually, is really necessary.
"I want to know specifically, statutorily, what is our responsibility for the sheriff's office," she says. "I believe that it was the sheriff's responsibility to make us fully aware of specifics, of which I wasn't aware. ... I'm many things, but omnipotent isn't one of them."
Yet Sheriff Terry Maketa says he went to Littleton in February to detail his needs. In fact, he says, "I have done that consistently since I was elected sheriff, and even prior to being elected. I've gone to [commissioners] and said, 'I need six patrol deputies; I need eight patrol deputies; I need 12 patrol deputies.' If the requests I had submitted had been even partially funded, we wouldn't be in the situation we're in now."
On Thursday, the commissioners will make a second vote, deciding for sure whether the question should make the November ballot. Despite her reservations, Littleton says she thinks commissioners will allow the question to go to voters.
But at this point, with those aforementioned statutory requirements staring him down, Maketa's not interested in kissing her ring.
"These are core essential functions of government that those commissioners are obligated to uphold," he says. "If they're not going to do their job, and follow the law, and live up to the oath they took, they should not be in office.
"I demand they resign right now, and we appoint somebody that will."
The "they" in Maketa's statement includes Commissioner Darryl Glenn. He cast the sole vote against the ballot initiative last week, saying he doesn't believe the community can absorb a tax increase now. And while he acknowledges that critical needs have long gone unanswered, he thinks Maketa's initiative is too hasty.
"If we were going to have this strategy, we should have been working on this a while ago to build community support and educate people on the fact that we have those critical needs, and the only way to satisfy this is to raise taxes," he says. "That takes a broader community conversation."
There's no right time to ask for a tax increase, says Commissioner Sallie Clark, adding that the idea they will find money during the current budget process to cover the sheriff's $14.2 million shortfall in mandated costs is far-fetched.
"We've cut and cut," she says. "There's no waste in county government, it's gone. ... We don't have really any additional costs that are things that we could just cut off."
Clark is supporting the initiative.
"There is no surprise that we need more funding for public safety," she says. "I think that the sheriff has made a reasonable request to present this to the voters, and I think that he needs the money."
Between two medium-security wards at the Criminal Justice Center, a work console in a cinder-block desk, called the mod, is positioned so that a deputy essentially can watch the back of his colleagues while they work inside the wards. Each ward can hold up 90 inmates.
There are such stations throughout the jail. No one's at any of them.
"The deputy will step out of the ward, to resupply it or grab something," says Maketa, "and the mod is the one who should be stepping in, but I don't have the staffing for that."
His office has an obligation to protect that deputy, Maketa says, but the county is also statutorily and constitutionally required to provide for the general welfare of the jail population, he says.
"Every week, I see video of assaults in the jail," he says. "Almost every day I hear radio traffic where a deputy is calling for backup."
But protecting inmates also means maintaining standards of cleanliness, temperature and so on. It means working dishwashers, washers, cameras and security doors, as well as proper staffing. Courts have made those decisions, he says, and "there is not a court in the world that will not say that those are the responsibility of the [county] commissioners to fund in a safe and secure manner."
Undersheriff Paula Presley points out that the jail's dishwasher is failing to maintain a 180-degree water temperature.
"I know that the public is like, 'A dishwasher? Let the inmates wash them by hand,'" Maketa says. "But then we have to meet health department codes, and nationally accepted standards of what is completely sanitized, because in our population, we may have inmates who have communicable diseases."
"If someone gets sick, it's either deliberate indifference or negligence," Presley says. "That's how everything in the jail is measured. If there's not sanitary conditions, guess what? People get sick. If people get sick, and if you are the direct cause of those people getting sick, it's either deliberate indifference or negligence."
Maketa says that if the jail staff knew a threat existed and did nothing, inmates could sue even if they weren't directly affected — they just have to be threatened.
"Don't do what you are supposed to do," Presley warns, "and the lawsuits will far exceed these costs."
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