By Tony A. Archuleta
The Sierra County Commission last month tabled advertising the position of transport officer to shuttle county jail inmates between Truth or Consequences and Deming mostly.
Since the Sierra County Detention Center closed indefinitely last month due to staffing and infrastructure issues, the county is paying to house inmates at the Luna County Detention Center in Deming.
By state statute, counties are responsible for transporting prisoners to and from court hearings and the like, and with 50-plus inmates under it supervision on any given day, the road miles are racking up.
They are also overwhelming the Sheriff’s Office, which does the transports.
“For the Sheriff’s Department, transporting has been burdensome to say the least,” County Manager Bruce Swingle said at the Nov. 18 county commission meeting.
“Right now (Sheriff Joe Baca) has officers that are pulling that responsibility, whether they’re on duty or they are off-duty – and receiving overtime.”
As a cost-saving measure, Swingle and Baca, along with Detention Center Administrator Virginia Lee, are recommending the commission hire a transport officer.
Baca said “most agencies” in the state, including the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Department, employ transport officers.
“They don’t have to be a certified law enforcement officer, so you can pay them at a less rate than you do a deputy,” he said.
Baca said Seventh Judicial District Court judges locally “are working very well with us” although they “are getting a little irritated because of the fact that we have these transportation issues.”
County Commission Chairman Walter Armijo inquired about the possibility of utilizing volunteer deputies to transport inmates.
Baca replied any volunteer deputy would have to undergo level 1 and 2 training to minimize the county’s legal liabilities. He said neither the county nor the sheriff’s office has the money and/or time to train volunteers.
“I barely have the staff to train the rookie deputies that we have now,” said Baca, who is leaving office in January following his unsuccessful bid for re-election in November.
Baca encouraged the commission to follow up on its recent proposal to raise county employee salaries across the board.
“I honestly think, once you guys pass that salary, issue that we’ll be able to fill those (vacant deputy) spots, even from local,” he said. “We will have people apply with that pay, knowing it’s competitive with the local (Truth or Consequences) Police Department.
“If somebody wants to stay in this community and work as a law enforcement officer, that’s a decent wage. It competes with Las Cruces and Hatch.”