Cost of police force an 'eye opener' for Centennial City Council

Centennial officials tepid at prospect of separating from sheriff's office

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On the heels of a study showing that creating a Centennial police department would saddle the city with tens of millions in new costs, city councilmembers appeared to have little appetite for cutting ties with the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office — at least for now.

“It was an eye opener for me as a councilperson to see these numbers,” Councilmember Ron Weidmann said at the council's June 3 meeting.

The study, submitted by former Arapahoe County Sheriff David Walcher to the City of Centennial, examined how feasible it would be for the city to stop receiving law enforcement service from the sheriff's office.

In the short term, the study provides an estimate of how much more the city would spend on a police department instead of the sheriff's office from the year 2021 through 2025. Together with the 2020 start-up costs, the total through 2025 would be $29 million in additional costs, the study says.

In its June 3 presentation on the study, the city cited possible expenses in 2020 that would put the total additional costs close to $50 million for that same number of years. Elisha Thomas, Centennial's deputy city manager, emphasized that estimating costs is “not an exact science at this point.”

Centennial pays a large portion of its budget to the sheriff's office, which also provides law enforcement service for unincorporated Arapahoe County areas. The city in its 2019 budget allocated $29 million for the sheriff's office, to receive the service that it currently does.

Walcher has not responded for comment on the study.

'Worthy conversation'

In light of the $60,000 study, no councilmember explicitly said the city should go forward with transitioning away from the sheriff's office. Several members, though, voiced support for gathering public input on the possibility of doing so in the future.

The council should “study how long it would take us as a city to set aside this money to avoid some of this huge debt we might have to take on,” Councilmember Candace Moon said. “That's been one of our principles as a city, to remain debt-free.”

The city previously conducted an assessment of its agreement with the sheriff's office for service, but it didn't carry out a full study to compare the sheriff's office model to that of running a city police department.

“I want to emphasize that this is the first deep dive the city has ever done on really evaluating the cost of establishing its own police department,” Councilmember Mike Sutherland said, adding that the study can inform the current council and future councils. “That, in and of itself, has a lot of value to the city. I think doing the study was money well spent.”

Mayor Stephanie Piko was the most vocal councilmember in suggesting the city should hear public input on whether Centennial should make changes to the service it receives.

“It's obvious that, not only in the environment we are in today, but (with) the increase in population across the Front Range, that cost is going to go up” whether the city continues with the sheriff's office or forms its own police force, Piko said.

The city could hold small focus groups, a town hall or other forms of public outreach, Piko said, because “I think it's a worthy conversation to keep going.”

While councilmembers gave comments during the discussion, the meeting did not include a formal vote on planning public input. Piko suggested city staff could bring information in late summer or early fall on how best to gather input. Councilmember Kathy Turley was not present at the meeting.

'City remains satisfied'

The study on the feasibility of a police department came about after leadership at the sheriff's office changed following the November election.

That's when Democrat Tyler Brown took the sheriff's seat from Walcher, a Republican with more than three decades of law enforcement experience. Brown has worked as an officer in Northglenn, Aurora Public Schools and the small Town of Mountain View near Interstate 70 and Sheridan Boulevard.

The city has received more questions about its law enforcement service since the election, Centennial spokeswoman Allison Wittern said in February.

Citizens had asked about the city's model of law enforcement periodically before the election, too, and the city hasn't decided to create a police department, Wittern has said. Brown has not made any policy decisions or other moves as sheriff that Centennial city staff or councilmembers have found objectionable, or that citizens have complained about to the city, Wittern said.

It's expected that a large number of Arapahoe County deputies would need to transition to a Centennial police department if it were formed.

“We don't know who's going to want to stay, who's going to want to go,” City Manager Matt Sturgeon said during the meeting. “They've given a lot to the citizens of Centennial, and we have to think about that in any kind of transition.”

In a news release about the study, the city said it “remains satisfied with the work of the sheriff's office and appreciates the dedication of the women and men serving the City of Centennial.”

“I'm very confident that this current model delivers law enforcement services at a value you cannot get should you bring this in-house,” said Sturgeon, who called the sheriff's office's service exceptional, during the meeting. “But you always have to look at what quality of service you're getting and if that” meets citizens' expectations.

'Grounded in local control'

Some minor changes have already been made to the contract, which is called an inter-governmental agreement, between the city and sheriff's office.

The city council approved on May 20 a change that reduced the contract's term to five years, starting Jan. 1, 2018, rather than 10 years, with the possibility to renew for another five-year term unless either the city or county gives a one-year notice that it will not renew. The Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners approved the contract May 21.

Any transition to a different law enforcement model by Centennial should involve cooperative planning and an ideal outcome for both parties, a city staff summary says.

“The language changes recognize that the city was formed on the promise of and is grounded in local control,” the summary read. “While a change in the service delivery model has not been directed by the current council, a future council may choose to move in this direction based on community feedback.”

The amended contract requires the sheriff's office to form a City Public Safety Advisory Group composed of at least eight city residents and business representatives, which will meet at least quarterly to advise the sheriff's office about concerns with items such as levels of service, budget and community safety programs.

Read the feasibility study here.

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