Bloomfield residents say city needs municipal police department
City considers contracting for services with Sheriff's Office
- Since the beginning of the year, the city has lost five police officers.
- Mayor Cynthia Atencio said the city cannot compete with the wages other law enforcement agencies pay.
- In 2003, the city had several public meetings about contracting with the Sheriff's Office for law-enforcement services.
BLOOMFIELD —The challenge of retaining police officers for their shrinking department has led city officials here to begin discussions about contracting with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services rather than having a municipal police department.
Since the beginning of the year, the city has lost five police officers. In a statement released last week, Mayor Cynthia Atencio said the city cannot compete with the wages other law enforcement agencies pay.
But the idea of eliminating the Bloomfield Police Department was not well received by local residents. Several of them attended a Bloomfield City Council meeting Monday to voice concerns about the proposal.
Longtime Bloomfield resident Patricia "Trish" Clark compared Bloomfield to the small northern Utah city of Hyrum where she grew up.
"Something happened in the '70s that I think the citizens regretted," she said about Hyrum. "They turned their police force over to the county. It seemed like the right choice at the time. They couldn't take the long view because the money wasn't there. I'd like to encourage us to take the long view and find some way to keep this going for us."
Clark said contracting with the county would mean giving up some of the local decision-making power.
In addition, she asked the council to make interim police chief Randon Matthews the police chief.
Gary "Gunny" Lepire agreed with Clark.
“Spreading everything out countywide is not an answer,” he said.
City has discussed contracting with sheriff in the past
This is not the first time Bloomfield has entered into discussions with the Sheriff’s Office regarding contracting with the county rather than maintaining its own municipal police department.
In 2003, the city had several public meetings about contracting with the Sheriff’s Office. At the time, the city and county were considering using the Bloomfield police headquarters as a Sheriff’s Office substation.
After the meeting Monday, Atencio said the city has not reached the point of discussing whether the current police headquarters would serve as a substation if the city were to contract with the Sheriff’s Office.
Since those 2003 discussions took place, a new police building has been constructed. The multimillion-dollar building that houses the Motor Vehicle Division, municipal court and police department was built about a decade ago.
In 2007, a tax was enacted to pay for the $6 million loan on the 18,000-square-foot building.
Fire department may also contract with county
Bloomfield fire Chief John Mohler urged the council to look at the idea of contracting with the county for fire services as a different issue than the police department. He said he has been telling the council for years that the fire department needs more firefighters.
"We need more help than anyone here can afford, more than the city can afford," Mohler said. "That's why we're looking at it for the fire department. Not to get rid of it. To get more help here."
He said the Bloomfield fire station is the third-busiest station in San Juan County.
“We are so overloaded, our guys are tired,” Mohler said. “We need help, and we can’t afford it.”
In 2016, the city of Bloomfield held a special election to decide whether to raise gross receipts taxes. Then-Chief George Duncan asked for the gross receipts tax increase as a way to pay for firefighters’ salaries when a federal grant that had been funding the positions reached its end.
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While the campaign for the increase centered around using the additional money for the firefighters, the funds were not designated specifically for use by the fire department.
While the residents voted in favor of the increased tax, the fire department did not receive extra money to pay for firefighters.
Now Duncan is the city manager. He said the revenue from the tax increase has been going into the city’s general fund, which is used to pay for operations, including at the police and fire departments.
He said there are three paid firefighters at the Bloomfield Fire Department.
Councilors address residents’ concerns
Councilor Matt Pennington, who owns the Farmers Market grocery store, said he has called the police and fire departments on numerous occasions due to emergencies at the grocery store. He said both the police and fire departments have displayed a fast response time.
"They're professionals, they know their jobs and they get it done," Pennington said.
He said regardless of how the numbers come in, he does not think anyone could replace what the Bloomfield police and fire departments do. Pennington said the city’s discussion with the county is intended to gather information.
"Information's always good," he said. "One way or another, it's always good to have the information together. Find out what it is, find out the numbers, figure out what's going on. It makes making decisions easier."
Councilor Curtis Lynch echoed Pennington’s statements.
“My heart’s in this community,” he said.
He said the city has not made a decision about the idea, but it is looking at contracting with the county because it cares about the police officers.
“The only reason we’re even considering this is we want to be able to pay you,” he said.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.