City ponders turning over policing duties to county sheriff

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BLOOMFIELD — City officials here say no police officers will lose their jobs nor will the response time be lengthened if Bloomfield chooses to contract with the San Juan County Sheriff's Office for law enforcement services in the future.

Discussions are continuing between the city and the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office as the former considers its options in regard to law enforcement services.

Bloomfield officials have assured residents they will have public meetings before any decision on the issue is made.

Both the Bloomfield City Council and the San Juan County Commission would have to approve the contract if a change is made.

Why is the city considering contracting with the Sheriff’s Office?

The discussions about contracting with the county came in light of budgetary struggles in Bloomfield.

The city saw a steep decline in gross receipts tax revenue when the oil and gas industries went into a pattern of decline in fiscal year 2016. While those revenues are improving, the city is still on a tight budget.

In addition to the decline in revenue, the city has incurred debt from its involvement in several lawsuits and owes the Bloomfield Municipal School District money after an error installing a water meter led to the city overbilling the district for several years.

Mayor Cynthia Atencio said the decision to enter into discussions with the county came because of safety concerns for the residents, police officers and business owners in Bloomfield.

She said the city's police department is understaffed, and the city cannot afford to hire more officers or replace the department's aging equipment, including its vehicles.

The discussions with the Sheriff’s Office also have allowed the city to have an outside review of the police department’s operations and needs. Undersheriff Shane Ferrari, who is running unopposed for the San Juan County sheriff's position, visited the city of Bloomfield to evaluate what it would take for the Sheriff’s Office to run the department.

Ferrari said he would need to have 18 deputies stationed in Bloomfield, but he said he did not know if 18 officers would be enough for Bloomfield if it maintains its own police department. He said his agency wouldn’t need to have as many deputies stationed in Booomfield because the administrative support would be handled in Aztec by the Sheriff’s Office staff.

In addition, Ferrari has evaluated the Bloomfield police vehicle fleet and is providing city officials with information about which vehicles he believes must be replaced.

“Their fleet is in pretty poor condition,” Ferrari said.

Interim Chief Randon Matthews said the poor condition of the aging fleet makes it hard for his officers to safely engage in high-speed chases.  Matthews told the Community Police Advisory Committee, a committee of Bloomfield residents that the city formed to receive input about law enforcement issues and help educate residents, on Tuesday that he had to end a pursuit recently when his car began “shaking like a leaf” at 80 mph.

Ferrari said the Sheriff’s Office is not emotionally invested in the decision about potentially providing law enforcement services for Bloomfield. He said ultimately his goal is to ensure Bloomfield has a stabilized police presence.

How many officers are currently employed by the Bloomfield Police Department?

Matthews said there are 16 officers employed by the city of Bloomfield, which is all that the city has budgeted for this year.

Some of those employees are new and will need to complete law enforcement training. That training is being paid for by WorkForce Solutions — which assists entities like Bloomfield with staffing and recruiting, and provides grants for employee training — but it means the city only has 13 officers able to patrol, Matthews told the committee.

Since April, Bloomfield has had nine police officers either leave or inform the interim police chief that they will be leaving.

“It hit hard, and it hit fast,” said Matthews.

Will these officers lose their jobs if the contract is approved?

Atencio said none of the current Bloomfield officers will lose their job if the city chooses to contract with the Sheriff’s Office and the county agrees to oversee law enforcement in Bloomfield.

“They’re very concerned about their employees there,” Ferrari said.

He said there aren’t enough officers at the Sheriff’s Office to handle the Bloomfield case load. If the city does contract with the Sheriff’s Office, Ferrari said he will hire any Bloomfield police officer who can pass a background check.

Atencio said the city has asked the Sheriff’s Office for information about what it would cost to contract with the county without any layoffs. She said the contract also would require keeping the two school resource officers in Bloomfield, as well as keeping a Bloomfield officer on the Region II narcotics task force.

“If we don’t all participate in the task forces that we have, then they don’t work,” Atencio said.

Will contracting with the county increase response time?

A recent media report cited an anonymous source who claimed Bloomfield would see an increase in law enforcement response time to 20 to 30 minutes if the Sheriff's Office takes over policing duties in the city, but Ferrari disputed that claim.

Ferrari said his deputies would not be coming from Farmington. Instead, the Sheriff’s Office would locate deputies within the Bloomfield city limits during their shifts if the city chooses to contract with the county.

In addition, the Sheriff’s Office District 9 coverage area abuts city limits on the west side.

The average response time for the Sheriff’s Office is between five and 10 minutes county wide, according to Ferrari.

Will San Juan County have to pick up the cost for law enforcement?

Ferrari said the county is facing some challenges with a decrease in revenue this year. He said the agency has had a stagnant budget for years, and the budget is restrictive.

Ferrari also said the county will not be willing to spend more money to replace Bloomfield’s police department, nor will it make money off the contract if the change is approved.

He said the savings to Bloomfield would come through economies of scale. He explained that the Sheriff’s Office and the Bloomfield Police Department make some duplicative efforts that would be eliminated through joining forces.

“We can do more with less,” he said.

Advisory committee members weigh in on the debate

Bloomfield Community Police Advisory Committee vice chairman Doug McKim strongly encouraged the city not to contract with the county for law enforcement.

“You give up more than you gain unless the money savings are so significant that the city can’t afford not to do it,” he said during the committee's meeting Tuesday.

Committee chairman Sam Mohler agreed.

“It’s going to be difficult if not impossible to get it back,” Mohler said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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