The face of city cuts: Craig Police Department may lose big as city slashes budget

Lauren Blair

By the numbers: Crime in Craig

Despite being a community that is slowly shrinking in size, maintaining public safety appears to be as big of a job as ever in Craig and Moffat County.

According to case filing numbers, Moffat County’s 2017 felony caseload is more than double that in neighboring Routt and Grand counties (the three counties together make up Colorado’s 14th Judicial District).

As of early July, approximately 173 felony cases had been filed in Moffat County this year, according to Communications Director Donna Zulian with the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s office.

By comparison, Routt County had only 79 felony case filings and Grand County had 51.

About two thirds of Moffat County’s population, or 8,698 people, resides in Craig, according to 2015 numbers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

The FBI data compares police agencies within Colorado by city and reveals that Craig has the highest number of total offenses compared to two other West Slope towns of comparable size — Delta, population 8,686, and Cortez, population 8,631.

Craig had a total of 660 offenses handled by Craig Police Department compared to 622 in Delta and 445 in Cortez. While Delta handled a higher number of property crimes, Craig had a significantly higher number of drug and narcotic offenses — 119 offenses compared to 12 drug offenses in Delta and 20 drug offenses in Cortez.

Craig Police Department staffing levels are comparable to neighboring mountain towns, at about 2.3 officers per 1,000 people, according to data compiled and presented by Police Chief Walt Vanatta in a June memo to Foreman. Delta and Rifle register at 2.1 officers per 1,000 people, while Glenwood Springs registers at 2.9.

The FBI’s recommendation for mountain region towns under 10,000 people is 4.3 officers per 1,000 people.

Employees in the Craig Police Department and other city departments are feeling the pain of budget cuts as Craig City Council moves swiftly to trim its 2017 budget in preparation for even deeper cuts in 2018.

Having failed to pass a sales tax increase in April, the city is faced with hard choices to cut $1 to $1.5 million from the budget in the next 18 months. But the cuts mean even more reductions in staffing at the police department — which already cut five positions in the past three years — and a reorganization that leaves one of its longest-serving team members with a tough choice himself.

Cmdr. Bill Leonard, who grew up in Browns Park and whose family homesteaded on Elk River in Routt County, began with the Craig Police Department at the tender age of 14 as an “explorer.” But now, after nearly 32 years of full-time employment at the department, he must choose between his community and his career: either accept a demotion and a pay cut or leave Craig to continue his career in another department.

City officials say the reorganization, which eliminates one of two commander positions, an investigator position and creates a new sergeant detective position, is necessary and better than eliminating Leonard’s job with the department entirely. But the shakeup has the police department scrambling to re-write policies and rearrange duties by Aug. 1, when the reorganization is supposed to take effect. And it is also taking a major toll on morale, both amongst police officers and also citywide.

“You cannot cut police officers and not impact public safety in one form or another. There’s far more aspects to public safety than just guys on the street.” — Chief Walt Vanatta, Craig Police Department

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, uneasiness,” said police Sgt. Tony Fandel. “There’s not a lot of morale right now… It’s not a matter of which department it is, it’s just the way all the departments feel right now.”

Meanwhile, some city employees have taken notice of new landscaping and wood-carvings installed at City Hall last week, part of an ongoing effort to beautify Craig to attract new residents and businesses. But at a cost of $2,500 for the new eagle carving and an estimated $300 plus labor costs for landscaping, according to City Manager Mike Foreman, some are questioning the city’s priorities.

City council is currently crafting another sales tax question to put before voters in November in hopes of mitigating further reductions, and efforts to recruit business and boost the economy are ongoing. But others are worried about how the first round of cuts will impact city services and public safety, as well as morale.

Inside the police department

With 26 staff, Craig Police Department has a personnel-heavy budget compared to other city departments such as Road & Bridge or Parks & Recreation, which spend more heavily on capital projects and equipment.

“When they look at numbers, they look at us, but we are the only entity that works 365 days per year, 24 hours per day… and has a minimum staffing requirement for public safety,” Vanatta said. “So it just takes us more people.”

During budget meetings in May and June, Vanatta first presented a proposal that would cut code enforcement — since it lies outside the police department’s core mission to protect public safety — resulting in savings of about $60,000.

But Council responded with a clear directive to instead cut a commander position, not code enforcement, and provide bigger savings that now amount to more than $175,000 annually. By ordinance, council cannot issue orders directly to city staff — rather, they direct the city manager, who in turn, oversees city staff.

“Normally we allow the departments heads to cut where they feel they need to,” said Craig Mayor John Ponikvar. “But Council really feels at this point in time, with… trying to make our community an attractive place for investment, that code enforcement was important.”

Furthermore, Ponikvar and councilmembers felt the department showed its competency under only one commander when it lent Commander Jerry DeLong to Steamboat Springs Police Department for seven months in 2015.

“We felt they had already set an example of where we could make that cut,” Ponikvar said. “The majority of council felt that the police department could lose some of the people at the top. We have a lot of people in the office and not out on the streets.”

But getting by without DeLong wasn’t that simple, Vanatta said, who felt Council didn’t do their due diligence in asking questions before issuing directives.

“Nobody on the city council asked me to explain to them what do our division commanders do,” Vanatta said. “Unfortunately, today’s world of police management isn’t just about keeping people on the streets. There are liability issues, training issues, mandates from the state for increased training… It doesn’t just happen on its own.”

Even when DeLong was serving in Steamboat, he came into the Craig Police Department every morning to meet with Leonard and Vanatta, who both worked 60- to 70-hour weeks to pick up the slack, Vanatta said.

DeLong is commander of the operations division and oversees 15 officers including patrol sargeants, officers and community service officers.

Leonard oversees eight personnel as commander of the support services division, essentially the investigative arm of the police department, including investigators, school resource officers and records technicians.

As for which commander position would be cut, “the writing was pretty much on the wall,” Leonard said.

Though DeLong has been at the department only nine months longer than Leonard, he has held the commander, or captain, rank for 20 years compared to Leonard’s 10.

On a personal note

For Leonard, the need for the city to make tough budget decisions is understandable, but he’s also disappointed in council’s process and is left with his own painful decision to make after 37 total years of service to the department.

“Both my wife and I were born and raised in Northwest Colorado… Our families have been here since the early 1900s…. That’s filling my mind as I try to make a decision,” Leonard said.

Literally the only other jobs Leonard has taken outside of the Craig Police Department were in the 1980s as a community service officer at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton while earning his degree and as a detention deputy at the Moffat County Jail one summer between semesters.

“Sure, the city is offering me this other position, but you have to look at your career in general. I’m probably 10 to 12 years from retirement and I’ve been loyal to the same department. I love this community, I think the world of the people in the community… It’s tough to think about leaving,” Leonard.

Foreman recognizes the difficulty of the situation, but sees the offer of a new detective sergeant position to Leonard as better than eliminating his opportunity to continue with the department altogether.

“Emotionally, it’s a tough, tough thing to have to do. No one in this position likes changing someone’s life and that’s exactly what you’re having to do when you’re asking someone to take a demotion and decreasing their pay,” Foreman said. “But I also have a responsibility to the citizens of Craig and a responsibility to my council and I take that very, very seriously.”

Will low morale lead to more turnover?

Vanatta is concerned that losing Leonard would lose the department his countless trainer certifications and specialty skills, not to mention his deep knowledge of the community. But he’s also concerned that the changes — and the way they were carried out — will incite other officers to look elsewhere for employment, potentially leaving Craig Police Department with the expensive and time-consuming task of hiring new officers.

“We have some significant morale issues around here. One of the things we pride ourselves on is keeping people. We’re not a revolving door,” Vanatta said.

Craig Police Department officers and staff tend to have long tenures, with an average of 13.5 years. Furthermore, it costs about $55,000 to hire and train a new police officer, Vanatta wrote in the June memo to Foreman.

To make matters more difficult, should the department find itself needing to hire, fewer people are lining up to join the ranks of police officers, perhaps in light of all the negative attention police officers, especially in big cities, have received in recent years.

“When I first started, you’d get 60 people in line for a position,” Leonard said. “Now you get three.”

Fandel, a sergeant with 15 years tenure at the department, is among those feeling uneasy.

“I wake up at 4 in the morning because I can’t sleep, because I’m trying to have all the options available to me depending on what’s going to happen. I can’t afford to sit around and wait too much,” he said. “Serving the community the way we do and having basically my fate in someone else’s hands is very stressful. My fate’s in everybody else’s hands right now.”

Fandel is worried about what might happen if the city slashes the budget further, perhaps even leaving Craig without police coverage in the middle of the night.

“It just seems like we’re not people, we’re statistics right now,” Fandel said. “We’re all people, we all have families, we all have responsibilities, but it feels like we’re not being looked at that way. We’re the bottom line.”

As to whether or how much public safety is impacted, city officials ensure it will remain a priority, but Vanatta made clear it will not go unaffected by the reductions.

“You cannot cut police officers and not impact public safety in one form or another,” Vanatta said. “There’s far more aspects to public safety than just guys on the street.”

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1795 or or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.

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