Fire, police forces seek more staff
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat Springs’ population has grown steadily over the past decade, as have the number of calls the city’s police department responds to. But there’s been no growth in the police department’s staffing, and that’s something Public Safety Director J.D. Hays hopes will change next year.
Hays’ 2007 budget, which he presented to the Steamboat Springs City Council during a pre-budget hearing Tuesday, asks for two additional patrol officers. The two officers would cost the city $130,264 a year in salary and benefits.
Hays told council members that the department’s current staffing of 13 patrol officers – the same number of officers it had in 1996 – is insufficient.
“It’s just not enough to get the job done,” Hays said. “I’m not trying to build an empire here, I’m just trying to provide enou-gh officers to get the job done.”
But even two additional officers won’t be enough in the relative short-term, Hays said. He would like the department, which he said handles 25 percent more calls than it did a decade ago, to add two officers next year and two officers in 2008.
Hays requested only two of those officers in the 2007 budget because he can “get by with” that number.
“Some people told me to ask for four and hope to get two. That’s not my style. I need more, but I’m asking for two, and hoping to get two, because that’s what I can get by with,” he said.
Hays’ police department budget for 2007 also asks for $52,400 to purchase three new bicycles for the city’s community service officers, a new radar trailer, a commercial washer for the Steamboat Springs Animal Shelter, police workstation software, patrol equipment such as radios and lighting, a laser printer and money for increased patrol training.
The difference between the staffing request and the $52,400 request is that the latter would be a one-time expenditure, Hays said. He’s trying to be realistic about what the council will approve.
“Things are tight across the board. I’m sure we’ll get some of what I’m asking for, but I won’t get all of it,” Hays said.
Fire department, too
Hays isn’t alone in his quest to add staffing. Steamboat Springs Fire-Rescue Chief Bob Struble is asking for funds to hire six full-time firefighters and purchase a $38,000 computer program that would allow firefighters to better track the calls they receive.
If approved, the six new firefighters would cost the city $326,000 annually.
Adding the new firefighters would allow the department to better staff its downtown and mountain stations. There currently aren’t enough firefighters to staff the downtown station around the clock, Struble said.
Like Hays, Struble said the increasing population of the district his department serves – which stretches beyond city limits – and the additional developments being built throughout the city is stretching the fire department thin.
“The growth in town and west of town is a huge concern for us. Six (firefighters) is the minimum number we need to be able to put two downtown,” he said. “It’s getting more and more difficult for us to respond west of town from the mountain station because of the traffic and how quickly we’re trying to get there. It’s just not safe.”
The last time the fire department increased staffing was in 2005, when it hired three full-time firefighters. Struble said those three firefighters were hired as a result of a request the department made in 2002.
Living in a resort town with an increasing population of locals and tourists concerns Struble. The number of people in town increases two- or three-fold on some of the busier tourist weekends, he said.
“The full-time population of Steamboat Springs is growing. When our population jumps from 12,000 or 13,000 to 19,000 or 20,000, we don’t have the staff to adequately handle that,” he said.
The fire department is handling 20 percent more calls than it did last year, Struble said. The number of simultaneous calls and second and third calls for service are running 28 percent ahead of 2005 numbers.
Struble also is concerned about the department’s responsibility to protect 380 square miles of land.
“Right now, we estimate we protect about $591 million of assessed value. That’s 79 percent of Routt County’s assessed value,” he said. “The building that is going on is increasing. These homes are huge, and that’s a lot of value to protect.”
Struble said some of the salary of new firefighters would be paid by the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District and possibly from a federal grant the department applied for in July.
By the numbers
In Hays’ presentation to the council last week, he provided numbers to support his assertion that the Steamboat Springs Police Department is short-staffed. His department has fewer officers than any other comparable mountain resort community.
Vail, with a full-time population of about 5,000 people, has 19 patrol officers. That doesn’t include 10 sergeants, commanders, chiefs and other department positions. Durango has a population of about 14,000 and employs about 31 patrol officers. Montrose, with a population of about 12,000, employs 21 officers.
Steamboat Springs has 13 patrol officers for a population of about 10,000.
Hays said that, on average, there are only two police officers patrolling the city at any given time.
“Look at the comparison. Next to communities of similar size, we’re down 6 1/3 officers,” he said.
But Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said comparing Steamboat Springs’ staffing to his is a little like comparing apples to oranges because of the geog-raphic and demographic differences between the cities.
“We’re right off the (Interstate) 70 corridor, of which we are responsible for 10 miles,” he said. “That generates a lot of calls for us.”
Vail’s transient population in the winter is another reason the department has so many officers, he said.
“We had 1.6 million skiers last season, and every single one of them comes through Vail,” he said.
While most police departments across the country use the “one officer per 1,000 people” ratio to determine the size of their force, that doesn’t always work in resort communities, Henninger said.
“The number of officers per 1,000 doesn’t work for me or in any resort community. It’s a really poor measure, because in Vail, we’d have five officers for our town. In Steamboat, you’d have 10 or so,” he said. “It’s an easy way to do things, but to me, you have to look at the number of calls per officer to have a better measure of how many officers you need.”
During the City Council meeting Tuesday, Hays said his officers fielded 7,400 calls for service in 1996. In 2005, the police department fielded 9,200 calls.
Hays predicts the department soon will field more than 10,000 calls for service and 20,000 computer-aided dispatch calls, which are calls that do not necessarily require any action or paperwork.
City Finance Director Don Taylor said receiving Struble and Hays’ pre-budget requests are the first steps in the budget process.
The city’s all-day budget retreat is Oct. 3 and will provide an opportunity for department heads to clarify their requests and answer any questions posed by City Council members.
“Based on their priorities, they can and will give the departments different directions,” Taylor said about the City Council’s role in the process.
Taylor said city departments can’t “bank on anything” until the City Council has deliberated.
“But nor is it all up in the air. The budget process will work itself out through how it was designed and intended to,” he said.
The first reading of the budget is scheduled to come before the City Council on Nov. 7, and the second reading is scheduled for Nov. 21
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
It may have been 20 years ago, but Rich Hager still recalls how his fingers ached as he helped his good friend and now business partner Bill Gamber unload a shipping container filled with sleeping…