Garfield County sheriff candidates spar over department spending

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Former sheriff Tom Dalessandri on Tuesday called into question current staffing levels in the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office since Lou Vallario took over eight years ago, saying he would trim what he sees as administrative “fat.”

“It’s less about programs as it is about staffing, and the disproportionate staffing that we see in the sheriff’s office,” the former two-term Democratic sheriff said at the Glenwood Chamber’s Issues and Answers Night candidates forum at City Hall.

Dalessandri is seeking a return to the sheriff’s job he lost to the Republican Vallario in 2002. The two face each other in the Nov. 2 general election after Vallario narrowly secured the Republican nomination in the Aug. 10 primary over challenger Doug Winters of Rifle.

Dalessandri announced last week that, if elected, Winters would be his undersheriff. Winters is currently a detective with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.

“I had just under 100 personnel when I left office, and now that number is up to 151, and there’s been a very minimal, appreciable increase in patrol deputies during that time,” Dalessandri said. “The first thing I would do is look at reductions in upper administration, and what I see as fat.”

Putting the staffing numbers together, he came up with 2.5 employees for every supervisor in the current administration.

Vallario countered that, when he took over the office from Dalessandri, he needed to grow the department to meet the needs of a growing county.

“I had a mission to make sure we have an adequate staff, not only to run a safe operation in the jail, but to provide 24-hour patrol and animal control, and some of the other programs you wanted,” Vallario told the audience. “Most importantly, it was consistent with the growth in this county.”

He pointed to a nearly 29 percent population increase in Garfield County since the 2000 census.

“We have provided a lot of services that didn’t exist before,” he said, adding that upper-level staff juggle some of the same duties as patrol deputies while still carrying out administrative functions.

Dalessandri said some of the programs that Vallario lays claim to actually began, or were already budgeted for, during his tenure.

“We initiated 24-hour patrols … he carried it forward,” Dalessandri said. “Animal control was budgeted when he took over, through work with the county commissioners and myself to make that happen.”

As for specific cuts, Dalessandri called into question the sheriff’s department’s professional standards division, which handles personnel matters. He cited a cost of $270,000 per year to run the division, handling duties that used to fall under the county’s human resources department.

“Internal affairs is the job of the undersheriff,” he said. “You don’t put line staff in a position where you might jeopardize confidentiality.”

Vallario defended the professional standards division, saying the more complex nature of background checks and other issues unique to sheriff’s personnel require a separate division from the county.

The candidates also addressed a recent issue regarding an intensive application process and background check that Vallario required of Garfield County Search and Rescue volunteers and other volunteer positions.

After concerns were raised about possibly alienating some longtime volunteers, Vallario said he was flexible in adopting a service contract used by other counties for their search-and-rescue volunteers.

“I was willing to make that happen,” he said. “The issue was never about dismantling the organization. The reality is we have found out things through background checks that we would not have found out before. I absolutely think the decision was the right one.”

Dalessandri said he was proud to build a search-and-rescue organization that was “strong and healthy” during his term. He also noted that, while the sheriff’s department budget has grown in other areas, one area where it has decreased under Vallario is in its support of search and rescue.

Vallario asked the voters in attendance if they’re happy with the “change” they voted for eight years ago.

“You’re going to hear a lot of rhetoric about change in this campaign,” he said. “I ask you to look back on my eight years and see the changes I’ve made.”


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