Belen, RC talking about police service

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Protecting the residents of Rio Communities from crime without cutting into Belen's police coverage is the dilemma officials from both municipalities grappled with Tuesday at the first of several collaborative workshops.

The need for law enforcement is Rio Communities' biggest concern, said Mark Gwinn, the state's newest mayor, during the workshop at the Belen Public Library.

"We have struggled with a lack of law enforcement in our community," Gwinn told the Belen City Council and Mayor Rudy Jaramillo. "We're wanting to work with our nearest community, and now, especially during the holidays. Our citizens need more protection."

Gwinn said while he would like Rio Communities to one day have its own police department, right now it's not possible because of a lack of funds. He added that he would like to see a presence of law enforcement that could possibly deter crime and help control speeding along N.M. 47, Manzano Expressway and N.M. 304.

"We do have property crime in our community, which is a problem" Gwinn said. "One horror story we had was a 75-year-old lady had a person who tried to break into her house."

The mayor said while trying to force the door shut on the intruder, the woman called 911, but it wasn't until 12 hours later that a deputy showed up to take a report.

Rio Communities Councilor Mary Lee Serna echoed Gwinn, saying, "We do have problems with speeding, we do have a lot of break-ins and drugs galore. We really need visibility."

Rio Communities Councilor Cyndi Sluder said she doesn't believe the city's problems are any different that what Belen experiences, and asked the Belen officials for their support and help.

While the Valencia County sheriff's deputies still respond to Rio Communities, Gwinn said the response time is lacking and they don't patrol the area very often.

Belen Councilor Wayne Gallegos said he's in support of trying to help the neighboring city, and would hope that a subcommittee of two councilors from Belen and two from Rio Communities could meet regularly to discuss possible solutions and take back recommendations to their full councils.

"We need to figure out what we can do without taking away from our citizens is my No. 1 concern," Gallegos said. "Maybe if we can agree on something, we can get things going. This is just a start and we have to keep our minds open."

Belen Police Chief Dan Robb said he had a few concerns about a possible joint powers agreement with Rio Communities, specifically, the amount of manpower, the cost and the liability.

He said there are 20 certified officers on the city of Belen's police force, with one slot open. With two to three officers per shift, Robb said his officers are constantly busy and, without more officers, there would be "no way" they could patrol Rio Communities while attending to the needs of the Hub City.

"We would have to take on all kinds of crime — drug issues and property crimes," Robb said. "There would be a large expense for that. We would have to assign an officer out there, and that's a pretty good-size population."

Robb explained there should be two officers on shift for every 1,000 residents. He also said for his officers to just drive around to create a perception of police presence might be a liability if, for example, an officer was involved in a crash.

"We don't want to send the wrong (message) to the community if we're not doing anything but patrolling," Robb said. "We would just be security guards, and you can hire security guards yourself."

After meeting with the city's finance director, Robb said a police officer costs the city $62,679 per year in salary and benefits, which doesn't include the cost of that officer's equipment or vehicle.

The police chief also reminded both councils that there is a cost for dispatch services, which he described as "pretty steep."

Gallegos, who said one-third of the city's budget is allocated to the police department, said the Belen City Council should look at its budget midyear and possibly start a two-month pilot program after January to see how it works.

Mayor Rudy Jaramillo said he's been talking with City Manager Mary Lucy about giving the city of Rio Communities information about possible grant money available.

"It's a new community, and maybe there's something out there you can set aside for policing," Jaramillo said.

Belen Councilor David Carter said while the process isn't going to be "quick and easy," he would hope that the conversation continues between both councils. He noted the city of Belen depends heavily on the gross receipts taxes that residents of Rio Communities generate in the Hub City.

Belen Councilor Audrey Torres-Vallejos added that Rio Communities has a better opportunity to acquire grants, especially from the Department of Justice to start up its own police department.

"We really do want to help Rio Communities, but we also have to be careful that our citizens are covered," Torres-Vallejos said. "I'm glad this meeting is being held, and I think it's a win-win situation for both Belen and Rio Communities."


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.