LOVINGTON – The Lovington City Commission Monday night said they are having understaffing issues with the police department.
“It’s pretty bad. It’s horrible. The morale is extremely down,” Loving-ton Police Chief David Rodriguez. “They’re (officers) obviously getting worked to death because we don’t have as many officers that we had before.”
During the meeting, Commissioner Bernard Butcher asked Rodriguez about staffing at the police department.
“Chief I was wondering,” Butcher said. “How are we staffed now at the department? Are we still pretty well down officers?”
Rodriguez replied, “Correct. I had another one that notified us last week that he has applied at another location as well. So yes, we are at extreme to extremely critical staffing. We do have two uncertified, but it’s going to take us at least a year to get them up to par.”
Rodriguez said the department currently has approximately 14 to 15 certified officers that are currently employed, one being uncertified and currently enrolled in the academy, compared to 37 officers before the staff reductions began in February 2020.
According to Rodriguez, the 2020 reduction consisted of cutting five to six officer’s positions, a fifteen percent pay cut
Rodriguez noted the department has lost nine officers to neighboring departments such as HPD and the Lea County Sheriff’s Department.
Lovington Mayor David Trujillo went on to explain the issues the department has with staffing has nothing to do with the employer, rather more about money and the fact that surrounding areas are willing to pay their officers more. He praised the efforts of Chief Rodriguez.
“He’s done an outstanding job keeping his department together,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo further noted that COVID-19 took a huge hit to most, if not all cities, with Lovington being one of the major ones. This issue, in turn, is what has also caused not only Lovington but other departments in the area as well to have staffing issues.
“Where the major issue is at is we’re having to compete with HPD and Lea County Sheriff’s department in salaries,” Trujillo said. “The thing about it is they do pay more and they’re local. Money always seems to talk and you end up losing officers due to that.
“ANOTHER THING IS, we had our bump with COVID and changes in city hall that affected it,” Trujillo said. “Both factors played into what is currently happening right now. After any pandemic or major crisis, you assess how you operate. It is a nationwide crisis in reality. Hobbs is down officers and so is the Sheriff’s department. It’s not like nobody is down officers, it just happens that we’re more affected by it because we’re a smaller community.”
Trujillo said the department can not continue to keep up with surrounding departments who continue to give raises to their officers because ultimately they will end up having “a police force and no city employees.”
“We’ve given raises to the police department,” Trujillo said. “Matter of fact, two years ago we gave them a hefty raise, but both Lea County and Hobbs ante-up-ed theirs (raises) as well. There’s no way we can compete with that, so we have to reassess and redirect to a new direction to pretty much accommodating what is happening right now. We cannot continue going down the same path and saying money is the answer because that’s where it hasn’t worked. We can give more money, but that’s where everyone else is going to ante-up. There’s no way we can afford to give raises and raises and raises because our GRTs (gross receipts taxes) do not support it.
“A healthy year of GRTs is $600,000-$700,000 a year,” Trujillo said. “A bad year like last year, sometimes we’re looking as low as $350,000, and $500,000 at the highest. The revenues just are not there.”
Trujillo said the way he plans on addressing the issues with the department is by setting up a commission work session meeting in September to figure out how to address the “inflation, because across the board everything has gone up.”
“Lovington has not increased their taxes in over ten years but the cost of everything has gone up in salaries, employees, payroll and operation costs has doubled if not tripled in some areas,” Trujillo said. “We as a board need to reevaluate and take measures to accommodate what’s in front of us. If we don’t we’re going to continue to lose officers, we’re going to continue to shrink as a governing body in reference to what we provide to the city because there is just not enough GRT support.”
Chief Rodriguez told the News-Sun the issues with hiring is due to the lack of funding.
“For years,” Rodriguez said. “Our department has been neglected for years. Not only mine, but the water department as well. We have to start working on those little things. We have to start showing the staff that we do care for them. There isn’t enough money in the pot to go around.”
Rodriguez added he is trying to do what he can to help alleviate some of the stress on his officers, but despite what he has been doing, the department is still seeing problems.
“WE HAVE BEEN providing everything we can for them,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not only affecting them, it’s affecting their families, their vacations, everything.
“Since I have been chief, since 2014,” Rodriguez said, “I have (helped) my guys with basically whatever they need, I do whatever I can to get that for them.”
Rodriguez added another reason he is seeing issues with officers is due to the fact that officers can go “a couple of miles up the street and work for $6 more an hour.”
“We can’t continue to provide services for the community at the levels we’re at (staff wise),” Rodriguez said. “There’s just no way.
Despite the understaffing and financial problems the department has, Rodriguez said his officers are still willing to give back and that is what makes the department so great.
“Even with everything still like this, I can guarantee you if I were to go a organize something for the community right now, my officers would go out of their own pockets and would donate money to do whatever we needed to.”
Rodriguez hopes, “to get the city back to where it is financially somewhat in a better position than what we originally were. My No. 1 goal is to end the city fiscal year in the black rather than a red number. Fortunately, we were able to do that and now we are just trying to build up.”
Rodriguez added, “We have some bright, bright days coming for this community. There’s a lot of projects that will diversify our city portfolio that will hopefully in the future have good dividends for our department as well as others.”