The Harris Park Community Center was packed to standing room only Oct. 4 to hear from Park County Sheriff Tom McGraw and two county commissioners, Ray Douglas and Dick Elsner.
About 70 attended the event that was hosted by Harris Park residents.
The meeting closed at 9 p.m., but the elected officials stayed, talking to individuals for an hour, and then moved to the parking lot when the building needed to be locked at 10 p.m.
Each elected official introduced himself and spoke for a couple of minutes before taking questions from the floor.
McGraw’s opening comments focused on a November ballot question that would raise one-half percent sales tax for the Sheriff’s Office.
This is in addition to the countywide one percent sales tax for water resources, open space and outdoor recreation.
McGraw said when he was sworn in as sheriff, the department had 10 officers. He was able to increase salaries and purchase more vehicles, as well as hire 10 additional officers. To be fully staffed, he needs two more officers.
He said officers with one year’s experience can get a position in the Front Range with a $90,000 salary.
With a Park County starting salary of $43,000, he stressed the importance of not just hiring anyone, but hiring officers who stay because they want to live and raise their families here.
If the sales tax is approved, he said between $500,000 and $600,000 would be collected each year to fund four priorities.
1. Currently, the department has three security resource officers. Two in Platte Canyon RE-1 School District cover the elementary school and middle/high school complex. One works at Park County RE-2’s school complex in Fairplay.
A fourth SRO, McGraw said, would cover when an assigned SRO is out for any reason. When not covering for an absence, the SRO would rotate between the Guffey and Lake George charter schools.
In the summer, the SROs would act as a special unit, helping where needed.
When asked how he will build trust with youth, he said his goal is that officers are seen as human beings just like them. That is accomplished by doing things together.
One such activity was the recent basketball game between the Platte Canyon basketball team and Park County deputies that raised money for the Fallen Officer Fund of Park County. In the summer, he will organize baseball games.
He said the SROs are trained to interact with youth in a positive way, not just be seen as a guard against violence.
He also mentioned a recent golf tournament raised $17,000 for the Nate Carrington Scholarship Fund. After bills were paid, $12,000 will provide four scholarships, two in each school district.
2. His second priority is training, especially how to respond to mental health issues, including suicide threats.
McGraw said the sales tax would also cover additional training and associated expenses of hotels and meals because most training occurs in the Front Range.
3. The Sheriff’s third priority is to acquire a canine unit. Training for both the deputy and the canine is expensive, and is a three-month program.
McGraw said all the deputies want to be part of the canine unit. Due to the expense and the need for a dog to stay with the same officer throughout the canine’s life, he will choose deputies who want to live and work in Park County, not someone who will leave after getting a year or two of experience.
An example of the need involved a high speed chase this summer at night. The chase led to a crash and the suspect taking off on foot into the woods.
McGraw said because a youth camp was in the area, he had extra concern to find the suspect quickly. McGraw said fortunately, the suspect didn’t go to the camp and was found the next day.
He said the need for a canine unit in situations where the suspect runs is only one way a canine could be used by the Sheriff’s Office.
4. If approved, the fourth priority for using the sales tax revenue would be for search and rescue operations.
He said most search and rescue incidents are by people who don’t live in the county, and no money is collected to cover expenses of a rescue.
McGraw said most of the Sheriff’s Office’s calls involve someone from out of county who doesn’t pay property taxes. A sales tax would collect taxes from out-of-county travelers to help pay the costs of pursuing violations by out-of-county people.
McGraw said one type of call he did not expect to get as much as he has involves suicide threats, deaths from suicide and support for family members.
Several people who attended the meeting spoke of how suicide had touched their lives and the need for suicide prevention including a local call office.
Rodney Reese said his son and his son’s friend committed suicide together two and one half weeks ago. He said the community has pulled together to help the families.
He said the county has two Life Line signs in the county and he would like to see more.
Another speaker said Park County has a higher rate of suicides than the state of Colorado, and Colorado has a higher rate than the national average.
The person also said the rate of suicides among 15- to 25-year-olds is now as high as the rate of suicides among war veterans. Isolation and bullying are cited as the biggest contributors to suicide, he said.
Elsner said the county is putting together a program to address mental health issues.
Douglas said April Dawn Knudson is working with Park County Human Services to develop a program to meet the mental health needs in the county.
He urged people to call either Knudson or human services if they need help, or with what they see as necessary in addressing all types of mental health issues.
McGraw said that in his 36 years as a peace officer, he had seen a lot of suicides and even more suicide attempts. He said it is a very difficult issue to deal with. Most families don’t even have a clue that their family member would kill himself.
He said sometimes someone can be talked out of committing suicide, but at the same time, as Sheriff, he needs to make sure his deputies aren’t going to get hurt in the process.
McGraw said a qualified team in a motor home will soon start traveling the county to address mental health issues, and urged people to take advantage when it’s in their area.
He said when it starts, he will put dates it is available on the county website and Facebook.
The room erupted with clapping when McGraw announced that recreational shooting is currently banned everywhere in the county. The ban will be enforced on private and public land. The fine for the first offense is $500. If additional offenses occur, he said the fine increases.
Several other issues were brought up at the meeting such as roads, the shooting range near Harris Park, fire dangers at unmanned campgrounds, that traffic light at U.S. Highway 285 and County Road 43A and current construction at Roland Gulch.
Mike Quiantance, an attendee, said the United States Forest Service office in Buffalo Creek can be called when a campfire is found unattended. The number is 719-553-1600.
He said their funding depends on the number of calls they get each year, so even if you put it out, still call them.