After losing two police officers last year, the Town of Paonia is again advertising for a full-time police officer.
Approval for a new hire by the board of trustees comes as the town enters its busiest time of the year. The department currently has three full-time and one part-time officers, including Police Chief Neil Ferguson. More than once in recent months the department has been understaffed during an emergency situation, said Ferguson. There are times when they have to rely on Delta County Sheriff's Office for back-up. "We average a lot of overtime."
The department is short about two full-time officers compared to other towns the size of Paonia, said town administrator Ken Knight. When officers are out for training, vacation or other reasons, "We are down to the point of being at times dangerously short-handed." Not only does it cost in overtime pay, but the stress can lead to burn-out, said Knight. A new officer could almost be funded with the amount of overtime, and would cut down on overtime and stress.
When Ferguson joined the department a decade ago, he was one of six Paonia police officers. In 2015, staff cuts left the department with two and a half officers. "It's getting to the point where we have more people in town," said Ferguson. The department is at the point where it is becoming essential to bring another officer on board.
Mayor Charles Stewart said the cuts made in 2014-2015 were painful, but necessary. He supports a new officer, "Because I do think the present situation does put the public at risk to a certain degree."
"Adding a police officer at this time, I think, would be prudent," said Knight, and the current budget allows for it. However, he added, any additional hire needs to come with the "full knowledge" that in future years, "We may need to dip into that additional new one-percent sales tax to continue to fund this position."
What Knight doesn't want to see is an investment in a new hire, only to have to cut them loose after six months due to a lack of funding.
Chief Ferguson knows of one citizen who has expressed interest in the position and is in the process of obtaining state re-certification. That person lives in Paonia and would be available within the next few weeks, he said.