Sheriff: Public safety falling behind
PITKIN COUNTY A funding crunch has left the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office short of patrol deputies as calls have increased and the department has filled a new school resource officer position. In many ways, the sheriff’s office is in the same boat as the Aspen Police Department. Both law enforcement agencies have said hiring and retaining officers is getting increasingly difficult as housing and local costs of living increase.”From my perspective, public safety has fallen behind,” said Sheriff Bob Braudis, mentioning he has not asked for funding of a new patrol position since 1993, though calls have increased 56 percent.”The county has been on an austerity program during those years,” Braudis said. “We’ve been a strong team player for years. We haven’t asked for much.”This year, Braudis will ask the county to fund the school resource officer position as well as a new patrol deputy, a staff increase of two. Though Braudis is in the same position as the Aspen Police Department, with difficulty retaining good peace officers, the APD can pay more. A starting position at the APD is roughly $3,000 more per year than what the sheriff can pay. “Throwing money at a problem is the government’s way of solving a problem,” Braudis said. “We haven’t had that luxury.” That doesn’t mean keeping good officers isn’t tough for the APD as well. One-third of the Aspen police force is leaving or has left this year, representing 138 years of experience. The APD already has hired six new police officers this year, five of whom were sent or just graduated from police academy and require one-on-one training with a current officer for three months. Until this year, the Aspen Police Department had two school resource officers in the Aspen School District. However, the APD dropped one of the positions because of constraints on funding and patrol capabilities. So far, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office has posted an officer at the schools, but that means one less patrol officer on the ground. It’s something that Sheriff Bob Braudis said has put a squeeze on his already tight department. Officially, the school district is in Pitkin County, but the school district itself is a taxing authority and not subject to most county regulations. But with two APD officers at the schools, as it has been in the past, Aspen taxpayers were funding a position with a scope broader than the city limits.The jurisdictional jumble is complicated because the city of Aspen has annexed areas such as the base of Highlands Ski Area and Aspen Valley Hospital, high property tax areas that form a ring around the school district and leave the county with less funding.School administrators say it’s good to have a cop in the schools. High school Principal Charlie Anastas and the superintendent of Aspen’s school district, Diana Sirko, couldn’t say enough positive things about cops in schools.However, when asked whether or not the Aspen School District would give financial support to the school resource officer program, Sirko talked of “limited resources.””Through grants and the support of our sheriff’s office and police department, we were able to put those resources into instructional programs.” Sirko said. “We didn’t have to eliminate school resource officers. Given a finite amount of dollars, we have to make choices.”However, the new Pitkin County resource officer’s position won’t be an easy sell for Braudis, who must convince county commissioners who are feeling the squeeze from many different programs. When asked about the new position, Commissioner Dorothea Farris pointed out that many Pitkin County citizens live in the Roaring Fork School District and questioned why they would support a deputy in Aspen schools.Downvalley, the Roaring Fork School District pays for half of the salaries of the four school resource officers in its own schools.”I think it’s a great thing,” said Judy Haptonstall, superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District. “It gives kids a chance to get to know police officers. It helps law enforcement and it helps us a lot.”For now, Braudis is committed to having an officer in the schools and thinks it is a good investment, even though he is down two patrol officers and is seeking the funding for a third position.At the schools, sheriff’s deputy Renee Rayton may have a bigger job than she initially signed on for. A 27-year veteran with the Aspen police who has been the school resource officer for years, Brad Onsgard, is likely to take a leave of absence this semester and may retire next year. That would leave Rayton either on her own or with an APD officer rotating through. For both Onsgard and Rayton, however, the schools are where they want to work and where they say they are doing the most good. The two teach a class, get to know the kids and serve as a resource to the schools. “I love doing this,” Onsgard said. “It’s the best place to be in the world.” Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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