The case for a tax increase


This week I was discussing with folks the proposed sales tax increase for county law enforcement. That includes the District Attorney and the Office of the Sheriff, which really are countywide agencies.

For instance, the prosecution for the vast majority of state statutes is carried out by the district attorney for this judicial district, whether or not the criminal act took place in a municipality or in the unincorporated area of the county.

I note the geographical outline of the judicial district over which the district attorney has authority is the single county of Mesa, which is a good thing, because many judicial districts are composed of multiple counties and there the various boards of county commissioners all contribute to the operation of that office. I can leave it to your imagination as to how smoothly that process usually progresses.

What’s important in all these situations is that the district attorney is an elected position, as are the county commissioners who have control over the budget. But the district attorney is ultimately responsible to the voters, as are the county commissioners.

The county commissioners can’t fire the DA and while they can mess about with the budget, they cannot stop him from highlighting that problem to his constituency, which is incidentally the same one that elects the commissioners.

The same relationship exists with the sheriff. This creates a situation where voters have a real voice in the funding — and to some extent, the focus — of law enforcement in their county.

The county sheriff also has jurisdiction anywhere in the county and is not constrained jurisdictionally by municipal boundaries as the various police departments are technically constrained outside of their city limits.

Try as you might, you can’t get your city out of the sheriff’s county and intriguingly, the Colorado Revised Statutes provide, “The governing body of a municipality and the board of county commissioners may contract for the purpose of providing law enforcement, including enforcement of municipal ordinances, by the sheriff within the boundaries of the municipality.”

This often raises the question of why do we fund multiple agencies in the same jurisdiction to duplicate services that one might provide, which is a silly question because… I’m sure there’s a good answer for that, but I’m not sure what it is.

A number of metropolitan areas have created a single law enforcement agency utilizing the overarching authority of the sheriff. I have a hat from a conference I attended where the badge on it says, “OFFICE OF THE SHERIFF, Jacksonville Florida Police.”

There’s even a sleepy little backwater a few hours from here that has a similar structure which is described by Wikipedia, “The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (also known as the LVMPD or Metro) is a joint city-county police force for the City of Las Vegas and Clark County, Nevada. It is headed by the Sheriff of Clark County, elected every four years.”

That department was organized in 1973 and has about 5,000 employees and exercises law enforcement authority for about 2 million people.

I feel safe in saying that my experience has been that they have a pretty good department in a difficult area and an especially athletic bike patrol on the Las Vegas strip.

Personally, I like the idea of the chief law enforcement official in any area to be elected and not a department head who works at the direction of an unelected bureaucrat, such as Grand Junction’s city manager system.

I think that an elected sheriff or district attorney is acutely aware who they ultimately answer to — especially on certain Tuesdays in the occasional November.

With this in mind, as we contemplate raising taxes it might be nice to hear some concurrent ideas about saving money through overall efficiencies.

We don’t have to create a metro sheriff’s department but everyone could benefit from more sharing of resources by municipalities for duplicated tasks.

Just off the top of my head, it seems it would make sense to have a combined evidence and records facility, to say nothing of combining purchasing power for equipment, vehicles and maintenance.

I believe there is a case for a tax increase specifically for county law enforcement, but let’s take the opportunity to work a lot more ideas into solving the money problem at the same time.

Rick Wagner is a Grand Junction attorney who maintains a political blog, The War on Wrong. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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