EDWARDS, Colorado - What would the county commissioner candidates do to improve local public safety agencies' abilities to keep the community safe?
It's one question that Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller asked on behalf of Eagle County public safety agencies Thursday at a county commissioner candidate forum at Colorado Mountain College. Miller moderated the event, which attracted representatives from the Vail Fire Department, Vail Police Department, Avon Police Department, Eagle River Fire Protection District, Greater Eagle Fire Protection District, Eagle County Sheriff's Office, Gypsum Fire Department and the Colorado State Patrol, among other agencies.
Courtney Holm was the only commissioner candidate absent.
The issue of public safety isn't one that comes up often on the campaign trail, which is why the public safety officials were interested in not only hearing what candidates had to say, but also interested in informing the candidates of the issues facing local agencies.
From budget cuts to ballot questions to funding sources for things like the county-wide radio system, agency officials want to know where candidates stand.
"I thought it was great to start the conversation," said Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger. "In the good economic times, public safety is not a priority - there are lots of other priorities - and now that we're getting down to we don't have the funds for a lot of things, then it becomes more important to have the conversations about the real critical role in government, which to me is when you dial 911 somebody comes, when you turn on the faucet the water comes out and when you flush the toilet, it goes away. ... I think it's important to let (the candidates) know these have become significant issues (in the face of budget cuts)."
Jeff Layman, Republican, and Jill Ryan, Democrat, are running for the District 1 seat.
Dale Nelson, Independent, Jon Stavney, Democrat, and Courtney Holm, Republican, are running for the District 2 seat.
Question 1: While on the campaign trail, what have you been hearing about Eagle County public safety agencies (fire, law enforcement and emergency medical services) and what do you think we need to be doing to improve public safety in Eagle County? What role will you have as a county commissioner in elevating and improving the public safety agencies and their ability to keep our community safe?
Jeff Layman: There's broad support for public safety in general, said Layman, a former police officer who served as acting chief in Vail, as chief in Avon and as an undersheriff with the Eagle County Sheriff's Office.
"People don't think about it because they're pretty confident they're going to be served well," he said, adding that funding is always an issue and that he thinks people will generally support a "back-to-the-basics" approach to government, which he describes as police, fire, medics and roads and bridges. He said the various agencies and government entities should look for areas and reasons to work together.
Jill Ryan: It's easy to take public safety agencies for granted, Ryan said. There's a disconnect with a community that has no appetite for tax increases, but people might not realize service levels are on the line, she said. Ryan thinks there are many education opportunities between now and the election so voters understand what's at stake (if ballot initiatives don't pass).
"We're all in this together," Ryan said, adding that she'd "be an active participant in the conversation."
Dale Nelson: The campaign season hasn't brought up any major discussions surrounding public safety that Nelson has heard. Since public safety agencies typically work behind the scenes, people don't think about them until their services are needed, Nelson said.
He agrees more education could be done in advance of the election - when the Eagle River Fire Protection District and the Gypsum Fire Department are asking for tax increases - to let voters know that, for example, homeowners insurance rate could go up if fire stations close.
Jon Stavney: Agencies leveraged the drought situation well in educating residents around the county who paid close attention due to fire along the Front Range, Stavney said. He said he's confident voters might approve a tax increase this time around, even though voters opposed last year. Stavney, too, agreed that agencies have been educating the community well, but more can be done.
Question 2: How would you as a commissioner propose ensuring the continued viability of the county-wide radio system infrastructure even with the significant cuts the user agencies are facing? How will you be allies?
(Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger explained the issue concerning the county-wide radio system, which has become part of a state-wide system of communication. The local agencies pay for their respective uses of the system through a complicated formula, he said, and the system needs to be built out for better coverage away from the interstate. The county paid a much larger portion in the past and has since stopped paying. Henninger said, speaking for himself and not on behalf of the agencies, that the county owns the asset and therefore has a responsibility for maintaining it.)
Jill Ryan: This is critical infrastructure, Ryan said. "I don't have any solutions today to it, but I think it's core. I will keep an open mind in terms of the county's role."
Dale Nelson: Being able to communicate with each other has to be a priority, Nelson said. He would want to work with agencies to try to figure out a funding source to fund the system, he said.
Jon Stavney: "I'm as frustrated by this issue as much as many of you probably are," Stavney told police and fire officials. He said the system is the kind of thing that needs a capital improvement plan to put funding in place for the foreseeable future. "It's a county-wide asset and should have county-wide funding, and the taxpayers should be paying for that. ... I'm willing to provide the leadership when it comes to having that discussion."
Jeff Layman: The system and the communications center should be supported by taxpayers, Layman said, adding he doesn't think taxpayers would have a problem with that. He favors a dedicated stream of funding, but doesn't know whether it should come from sales or property taxes or some other source, adding that he thinks the county's reserve fund is "probably overfunded."
Question 3: What is your personal philosophy on how wildland fire response cost sharing should done between the county and towns/special districts, particularly on incidents that cross jurisdictional boundaries?
Dale Nelson: It would seem fair to fund these incidents based on a percentage that correlates to how much acreage is in one jurisdiction versus the other, for example, Nelson said.
Jon Stavney: "The idea that's there's lot of money sitting around to pay for wildland fire, it's just not there," Stavney said. "If it's not going to be there now, it's not going to be there soon." Stavney calls this issue a tough one, adding that the county needs reserves for incidents when the county needs to pick up some of the costs.
Jeff Layman: Sitting down together and negotiating is how Layman thinks the cost sharing should be handled. "I don't think there's such a thing as one formula fits all - every situation is handled differently."
Jill Ryan: Large emergencies are good uses of reserves, Ryan said. Agreements made ahead of time may not work when you're talking about large, unexpected expenses, she said, adding that there needs to be "creative problem-solving" among all the agencies.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.