Public safety was at the forefront of budget discussions as the Hotchkiss Town Council agreed to fund a fourth police officer and to purchase radar readers to cut down on speeding.
At the suggestion of public works director Mike Owens and Marshal Dan Miller, the town will purchase three radar signs to be placed at the three entrances to town. The solar signs will indicate the speed of an oncoming vehicle; the numerals flash when the posted speed limit is exceeded.
CDOT recommended the signs after the two men expressed concern about the increased speed limits on the outskirts of town. To reduce visual clutter, CDOT also removed some signs highlighting pedestrian crosswalks within the town. Both decisions were made by CDOT without any input from town officials.
The cost of each sign is $3,000 each. CDOT has agreed to install the signs if the town purchases them.
"How bad is the speeding problem?" asked Isabella Spano, one of the student leaders from Hotchkiss High School attending the Nov. 9 town board meeting.
"It's a problem," said Marshal Miller. While the speed limit on Highway 92 through town is posted at 25 mph, he said most cars are traveling 30 mph. A car traveling 5 mph over the speed limit requires an extra five car lengths to get stopped, increasing the risk of a collision with a pedestrian or a vehicle trying to enter the highway from a side street. "We're trying to get people to slow down and observe what's going on," he said.
The proposal to add a fourth police officer came up during discussion of the 2018 budget. Mayor Wendell Koontz said it will be a "stretch," but the town is including $55,000 for salary and benefits in the 2018 budget.
At a work session earlier this month, Marshal Miller explained the stress of providing 24/7 policing with a three-man operation. When someone is sick, goes to court, is in training or on vacation, the other two officers often work 18 to 24 hours straight.
Training is a "big deal," he added, taking away from time available for policing. To remain certified, the state requires 24 hours of in-inservice every year, with extra classes every other year. The state is expected to double that requirement in a couple of years. The town's insurance carrier wants an additional 40 hours of training.
Another issue is when an officer responds to an incident requiring investigation, booking and transport (typically an assault). The on-call officer is then tasked with covering the other calls for hours.
"The result is you start getting fatigue, start making mistakes ... we are wearing down," Miller said.
The department has averaged $20,000 in overtime over the past couple of years. Town clerk Marlene Searle told Miller his department will exceed that amount this year.
Miller said it is rare for officers to get two days off a week, and even when they're off they often spend time doing paperwork. Another issue is unused vacation time. Miller has more than 200 hours; Officer Chad Lloyd has 130 hours.
With a four-man department, Miller said they would improve traffic control; increase visibility with daytime patrols; visit schools and get involved with the kids; restart the police academy; and do walking patrols along Bridge Street and re-establish relationships with businesses.
The Hotchkiss Marshal's Office averages 1,400 calls or more each year, not including calls that don't require reports. The marshal's office is the only police department in the area that provides VIN inspections.
By comparison, Miller said Paonia Police Department averages 1,100 calls annually. Cedaredge averages 700 calls with more officers, plus a clerk, and "they pay better."
"This is a busy little town, with a lot of people traveling through or visiting the schools," the marshal said.
Although officers don't have quotas, if each one wrote two tickets a day, it would result in $90,000 in fines and fees for the town. With an additional officer, they would patrol during daytime when traffic is heavier. Miller said the impact would be $40,000 to $50,000 to help offset the cost of the officer.
Trustee Tom Wills noted that fines and fees in 2016 were $7,342; estimated revenues for 2017 are $40,000. Miller responded that there were some factors that took them off traffic enforcement in 2016. Typically, fines and fees run $25,000 to $30,000.
Mayor Koontz said he views the additional officer as a two-year trial, to give it time to prove itself, before evaluating the impact of going to a four-man force.