Nearly six months ago, in what was obviously a much different economic environment, this column encouraged Colorado Springs, particularly Mayor Lionel Rivera, and El Paso County to consider a bold strategy.
Even in early June, with falling tax revenues and a stagnant housing market, the situation was ominous enough to suggest combining our city and county governments.
For those who didn't see that piece, or need a refresher, the idea was to merge as many operations as possible: administration, public safety, streets and road maintenance, whatever. Aside from cost savings, another potential benefit would be a sales tax enforced county-wide, taking away the unintended problem of losing city sales tax at businesses in unincorporated areas just outside city limits.
The idea never found any traction. After that column in June, elected city and county officials scoffed in derision. They made it sound like the stupidest idea of the year, not even worth discussing.
Now we've reached the final weeks of 2008, and the local situation has deteriorated further. Like the rest of the nation, we've seen disappearing jobs and businesses, shrinking retirements and tightening credit, and relentless cuts in local governments. Amid all that, voters soundly rejected a sales tax increase that could have helped public safety and health.
So here we are, locked in a downward spiral with the prospect of continued cuts and scary revelations, such as no regular monitoring of restaurants or child day care centers. We could bring up combining governments again, but not without wider support.
Instead, let's narrow the focus. Let's consider merging our law-enforcement operations. Don't tell me it's too rash. Just listen to our top two authorities, Police Chief Richard Myers and Sheriff Terry Maketa.
Myers is telling people, including local TV and radio audiences, that Colorado Springs police have reached the point where they rarely check into property crimes, such as burglaries; instead, they urge victims to file reports online. Myers says his department can't realistically consider innovative, "proactive" policing tactics anymore, that it must simply react to the most threatening reports.
Maketa is saying he expects to cut at least 30 positions, including more than 10 in the Criminal Justice Center serving both city and county. The sheriff also plans to do away with six patrol officers, four investigators, five school resource officers ... you get the idea. That's not trimming fat. It's slicing into serious meat, for a department already severely struggling to have a presence throughout the sprawling county.
The jail predicament should cause the most concern. Maketa has been running the jail at a capacity of a little more than 1,600 (incarcerated) people per day, but with the latest cuts and fewer staffers, he says he's forced to reduce that capacity by 140 to 220 a day. That means the growing likelihood, as Myers also has described, of not even being able to lock up some people accused of felonies.
"We'll just have to book them and release them," Myers says, referring generally to nonviolent crime suspects. But sometimes suspects will be released without officers knowing all the details that an investigation might uncover.
It's easy to say elected officials will come back in 2009, as we're hearing, with another tax proposal to address the funding shortage for public safety.
But why not pursue other creative options such as meshing the city police department and county sheriff's office? It would create a much larger pool of resources to deal with such issues as staffing the jail, responding faster and more effectively to calls (including 911), and better patrolling more areas. Eventually, the joint organization could also join forces with the county's other small-town police departments: Fountain, Monument, Manitou Springs, Calhan.
Yes, it would mean a revamped power structure, with duties shared between a hired police chief and an elected sheriff. Surely, though, if Maketa and Myers sat down together for a week of heavy brainstorming, they could come back with plenty of ideas for how to work together and make the best use of their funds and staffs, without politicians getting into the way.
Who knows, they might even blaze a trail for the rest of our city and county governments to follow.
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