Citizens rally to save police officer’s job in San Jon

By Chelle Delaney

San Jon’s police officer Ben Gates still has a job — for now.

But a pink slip could still be on his horizon if San Jon doesn’t figure out a way to cover his $33,900 annual salary without “busting its budget,” or a way to negotiate help from a cooperating agency.

A resolution on the board’s agenda called for a “reduction in force,” but it was tabled by the board at its monthly meeting after members of the community spoke out in favor of keeping the officer.

“I was thinking I could be without a job,” said Gates, who has been the town’s only law enforcement agency for 11 years.
San Jon’s operating budget has taken a $50,000 cut in gross receipt taxes following the opening of two new truck plazas in Tucumcari, said Bobbye Rose, village adminstrator.

“It has cut us off at the knees,” she said.

San Jon’s citizens suggested that other ways be found to make up for the shortfall without cutting Gates’s position.

Without a police officer in San Jon to assess a gun shot incident or a domestic violence situation, medical volunteers cannot respond to such incidents, said Debbie Stoner, a San Jon volunteer emergency medical technician intermediate. Protocol states that “when there is a domestic (dispute) we cannot respond. And I’m not willing to put my life in danger,” Stoner said.

While other law enforcement agencies can be called to respond to such situations, it may take the New Mexico State Police or Quay County Sheriff’s Office between 45 minutes to an hour to arrive at the scene, Stoner said.

Stoner suggested cuts in the salaries of each of the village’s six employees to cover the cost of Gates’s salary.
If new businesses are being courted to come to the village, they will not want to come if there is not a law enforcement officer, Stoner said. “I’m real concerned with the choice to do away with the police officer,” she said.

“Ben needs to stay here,” said Kurt Simonson, owner of the village’s only motel, the San Jon Motel.

Keith Hilber, a teacher at the San Jon Middle School, said that last year, there was an incident of a known child molester outside the school. Had Gates not been there, they would have had to wait at least an hour for the state police or sheriff, he said.

The board should “weigh the priorities of the what is essential for the community … the safety of the children and the safety of the citizens,” Hilber said.

Sherry Ford chaiman of a citizen’s group “To save our cop,” also proposed that: village salaries be cut, an increase of $15 be assessed for Gates’s salary, and that a portion of the village’s budget for streets be put toward the police department. “He protects the streets,” said the citizens’s proposal.

After the citizens’s comments, the board adjourned for an executive session to discuss “personnel” matters, and when it returned the board voted unanimously to reappoint all of its existing employees, including Gates. The board was required to make its appointments by state statue following the March 4 elections for village board members. At the meeting were board members Mayor Joe Clark, Rodney Stoner, B.J. Barnes and Jose Gonzlez. Absent from the meeting was Leo Pacheco.

San Jon’s attorney, Warren Frost, suggested that the board seek ways to negotiate Gates’s salary as part of an agreement with the Quay County Sheriff’s Office and the Quay County Commission.

San Jon had already proposed that its $20,000 state grant for law enforcement equipment be part of a joint powers agreement with Quay County and sheriff’s office in anticipation of cutting the police department. That JPA was approved at the Quay County’s commission meeting on Monday.

Frost suggested that that agreement be renegoatiated. Frost said he would discuss the matter with Quay offiicals over the next several weeks.
After the meeting, 10 citizens had signed a citizens’ pledge for more than $10,000 to pay for Gates’s salary.