Pubdate: Tue, 25 Sep 2012
Source: Vail Daily (CO)
Copyright: 2012 Vail Daily
Author: Randy Wyrick


Commissioners Share Their Views on County Expenses, Open Space, Marijuana

AGLE, Colorado - The five brave souls running for Eagle County's two 
open county commissioner seats squared off in their first candidate 
forum Monday.

They faced a series of questions, four prepared beforehand and others 
from the public.

Jeff Layman, Republican, and Jill Ryan, Democrat, are squared off for 
the District 1 seat.

Dale Nelson, Independent, Jon Stavney, Democrat, and Courtney Holm, 
Republican, are running for the District 2 seat.

In the face of another 20 percent drop in Eagle County property 
values, what expense areas would you reduce? Jill Ryan: Since 2010, 
the county's budget has declined by 30 percent, Ryan said. The county 
is running pretty lean, and county employees are doing more with less.

At this point, it would be difficult to cut entire programs. Ryan 
said she would advocate a more nuanced approach. Departments should 
take the lead because they know their budgets the best. This county 
has a great wellness program, and that's a good way to cut costs by 
reducing health care costs, Ryan said.

Jon Stavney: While the leadership for setting goals comes from the 
commissioners, the best efficiencies come from the staff, Stavney 
said. Since June, when the commissioners reviewed the projects, the 
employees have come up with $2.5 million in savings. Morale and 
service are as high as they have ever been, and it's important that 
the county maintains that, Stavney said.

The county could have $65 million in general obligation debt, but the 
county has none and a healthy $13 million general-fund budget 
reserve. Stavney said he's proud of that.

In 2009, we saw a very aggressive move to turn around programs that 
were trying to keep up with growth. It required a complete change of mindset.

We did not increase property taxes and don't intend to, Stavney said.

Courtney Holm: Holm advocated a line-by-line look at the entire 
budget, a department-by-department analysis. The county has a $13 
million reserve. Property tax revenues are going to be down.

"When 75 jobs were eliminated, maybe government was running too big," 
Holm said.

Dale Nelson: It's great that the county employees have come up with 
$2.5 million in savings already, Nelson said. It best comes from the 
people with boots on the ground. But having cut 75 positions over the 
past couple of years, it's important to look for waste so we can come 
up with a balanced budget.

Jeff Layman: In any complex organization, there is always a way to 
get to savings and tighten your belt a little bit, Layman said. There 
are more than 30 funds that make up the budget.

He suggested performance-based evaluations and that all departments 
participate in a budget-reduction process, efficiency reviews and 
measurable performance.

Layman would advocate to determine whether the jobs could be done by 
a contractor in the private sector. The county is holding onto about 
$9 million, and that may be too much in its general-fund reserve balance.

Repeal Open Space Tax or not? Stavney: "It's a false choice advocated 
by people who didn't like the 10-year-old vote, Stavney said.

The open space project came under fire because early on it focused on 
conservation easements on working ranches that provided little or no 
public access, Stavney said.

"We've changed that. Every purchase made since I've been a 
commissioner has had a significant public access," Stavney said. "The 
option, I think, is not to eliminate open space funding but to 
broaden its public appeal."

Holm: "I'm getting a lot of people telling me, 'Please put open space 
back on the ballot,'" Holm said.

Buying up private property takes it off the property tax roles, and 
when the tax sunsets in 2026, there's no money to maintain that 
property, she said.

"Right now, the emphasis should be on jobs for the people of this 
valley," she said. "I voted for open space in 2002, but times are 
very different now. Homeowners are telling us they're losing their 
homes and can't pay their rent."

Nelson: "I want to put the public back in public servant. If the 
voters want to put it back on the ballot, then we should listen to 
that," he said. "I don't think the program has been managed as well 
as it could have."

"I'm excited by the river access. I'm not excited that we paid more 
than appraised value," he said. "I expected the money to be used to 
buy land we had access to. I agree that the county has made great strides."

Layman: "The short answer is yes," Layman said. "Much has changed 
since the tax was passed in 2002. I don't think we can set a course 
10 years ago without stopping from time to time to take people's 
temperature along the way."

"I voted against the open space tax because the county is 83 percent 
open space," he said. He called some of the early purchases a "disappointment."

Ryan: I don't think people realize the way it's being run now, Ryan 
said. The program leverages so much money from grants at the state 
and federal level. It's a dichotomy, she said.

"They like the river access but then say they need tax relief," she 
said. "Given what I've experienced, I wouldn't favor putting it on 
the ballot right now. I'll continue to listen. It's a new program and 
I think we should give it a chance."

Eagle County has lost a significant number of jobs since the economic 
slowdown. What would you do for job and economic growth? Holm: 
"Expand what you have. We're not going to get Microsoft or Google to 
move here, but we can concentrate on businesses that bring 6-8 people 
here," she said.

"Colorado Mountain College is now a four-year college. Why don't we 
work to attract more students? Their parents will visit and spend 
money, and that helps our mom and pop businesses," she said.

"Vail Resorts and the ski industry have been a big part of this, but 
I'm saying we need to diversify," Holm said.

Nelson: "We need to look at streamlining permitting and regulating," 
Nelson said. "That will allow bringing some of those smaller 
businesses that will stimulate our local economy."

"The chambers of commerce from all over the county were talking with 
each other about maximizing the events from the towns. I don't think 
we would have seen that five years ago. That's changed," Nelson said.

Layman: "We cannot ignore our powerhouses: tourism, construction and 
real estate. They're not dead; they're just slumbering a little bit. 
The county should enhance our collaboration with the towns and the 
private sector," Layman said.

"The best thing the county can do is get out of the way. Gypsum's 
energy projects, health and wellness - everywhere you look, economic 
development is happening," he said.

Ryan: "Tourism is our bread and butter," Ryan said. "The county can 
play a leadership role in that by helping promote medical tourism and 
capitalizing on our tourism economy. The international terminal could be big."

Stavney: "It's a myth that we don't promote job growth. The airport 
brings in about $1 billion a year," he said. The county is promoting 
equine events and other events that create new business, he said.

"There is so much good that's going on right now," he said. He took 
issue with a suggestion that county regulations are hindering 
businesses. "What county regs are inhibiting small business is the 
question I'd like to ask."

What are your thoughts on Eagle County's housing program? Nelson: 
"The county should not be involved in the real estate business. 
Basically, we're pitting public sector against the private sector," he said.

"Employees need places to live, and we need affordable housing. But 
the reality is that businesses around here are working at housing 
their employees. Businesses tend to be more creative than 
governments," he said. "This issue is a balance, and it's a cyclical issue."

Layman: "Had I been asked when the program was developed, I would 
have voted no. But at this point, we should use the program to help 
citizens who are in trouble on their mortgages by helping people from 
the down payment assistance fund to help people facing foreclosure," 
Layman said.

"I think it is totally appropriate that the county should be involved 
in foreclosure prevention and mitigation programs."

Ryan: "Our real estate market looks so much different than it did a 
few years ago. The median house is $450,000, and that may still be 
out of reach of some middle-income families," Ryan said.

She suggested reworking the housing guidelines to reduce some of the 
county's employee-housing requirements.

Stavney: "If you're confident in the continued success of Vail as a 
world-class resort, will people visit and want to move here?" he 
asked. "Housing is a cyclical issue."

He pointed out that Miller Ranch was developed with Republican 
leadership. "It is not a partisan issue," he said

"The guidelines are an impediment right now, but housing has shifted 
gears and it will resurface as an issue," Stavney said.

Holm: "If you're going to try to make sure people have housing, you 
should also try to make sure they have a job so they can pay their 
mortgage," she said. She suggested pursuing state and federal funds.

"Any time you can get money that's not straight out of our pockets, 
great," she said.

Do you support Amendment 64, the legalization of marijuana? Layman: 
"Our current medical-marijuana laws are a charade. It makes a mockery 
of our two most cherished traditions: the law and medicine. Most 
doctors tell us you don't smoke medicine," Layman said.

Some of the pot purchased on medical-marijuana cards likely comes up 
from Mexico and drug cartels.

"After the statewide vote, I would have preferred the county 
commissioners prohibit pot shops in unincorporated Eagle County. When 
the U.S. Attorney General opened the floodgates on this issue, he 
obviously wasn't thinking about small-town America like Eagle County, 
Colorado," he said.

Ryan: "It was such a passionate issue the commissioners did well to 
put it to a public vote. Amendment 64 proposes to regulate marijuana 
like alcohol, she said.

"It comes down to benefits and public costs. You don't want kids 
using pot. Where it's regulated, teens seem to use it less. Things 
are not always intuitive. Statistically, valid studies find that 
local kids say drugs are easy to get," she said.

She said those studies found that since 2009, when Colorado enacted 
its medical-marijuana law, they've seen an 11 percent decrease in 
marijuana use by high schoolers. In places not regulated with 
medical-marijuana laws, they've seen an 11 percent increase, she said.

Stavney: "I am proud that when this became an issue through the U.S. 
Attorney General, Eagle County was way ahead of most other places in 
dealing with it. Most of the towns in the county have decided they 
don't want it.

"I'm not a fan of this. I'm not for Amendment 64. I think it causes 
all sorts of problems for law enforcement and the courts."

Holm: "The U.S. Supreme Court is the one with the authority to 
decide. This is a federal versus state issue. Its not a county issue 
because they don't have the authority," she said.

It's a 10th Amendment issue, and there's a federal law that's 
overriding whether it's allowed, she said.

Nelson: "I'm not that offended by it," he said.

"The federal government has spent billions of dollars on this, and 
let's face it, they've failed. Mostly, it's a personal responsibility 
issue. The law is about adults. It's not about children and minors."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom