EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - Jill Ryan has spent a lot of time planning her first run for elective office, because she's a big believer in the power of public policy.
Ryan, a Democrat, is running for Eagle County commissioner, the 1st District seat currently held by Peter Runyon. Runyon is near the end of his second term in the job, and can't run again - unless he takes at least four years off.
With an open seat on the horizon, Ryan said she saw a "once in a lifetime opportunity" and began planning for a campaign.
That campaign started with applying, and receiving an appointment, for a term on the Eagle County Planning Commission. She's held that unpaid job for about 18 months, and said her time on that board has been a valuable way to learn about the county's land use policies.
While Ryan said she's been somewhat surprised by the complexity of land use regulations, she said she's also been pleased to work on problems that will affect the county for years to come.
That's especially true with a proposal for a large development at Wolcott.
"I feel a real responsibility to get it right," she said.
Public policy, public service
Ryan said public policy is "the best way to impact people's lives... I really want to help shape the future of this place."
Ryan said she "loves policy" and the ways its gets done, adding that she feels "called" to public service.
After her stint as a department head in Eagle County, Ryan stayed in the public policy business, as the founder of Silver Street Consulting, a public health consulting company. That specific job has led her to try to broaden her knowledge of other issues facing the county.
"Local government is complex," she said. "You have to understand the issues. You have to listen, you have to get information. That takes time, but it's worth doing."
Ryan said she's been listening to people inside the county government for a while now, and has interviewed both department heads and rank-and-file employees.
While Ryan knows she'll have to handle a lot of different issues if elected, public health is still near the top of her personal priority list.
"We have a real issue here with access to care for the uninsured - it's 24 percent of our population," she said.
When she was still working in Eagle, Ryan started working on a way to create a "federally qualified health center" in the county. That federal designation would free up federal money to help pay for care for uninsured patients in the county.
"A federally qualified health center will provide primary care to anyone, regardless of whether they have insurance, on a sliding-fee scale," Ryan said.
That center would not only be able to help more people, it would also take at least some of the burden off Vail Valley Medical Center, which now foots the entire bill for the Eagle Care Clinic in Edwards.
While finding more funding to help people with medical care is near the top of Ryan's personal to-do list, she also knows that the next commissioner's first annual budget - for 2014 - will have less money available than the 2013 budget.
Ryan said her background in public health has prepared her to evaluate the effectiveness of other programs and organizations, too. It's an approach she said she'd use in preparing for the next budget season.
That said, Ryan said the current commissioners have done an "excellent job" in handling the last drop in property tax revenue, which hit full-force in the 2012 budget.
"They were proactive," she said of the program of early retirement packages and layoffs that trimmed 77 people from the county's workforce between 2010 and 2011.
With the county already running "pretty lean," Ryan said any further cuts would have to be "pretty nuanced" to ensure basic county services are still provided.
Ryan said the current commissioners have also done a good job managing the county's open space program.
"People seem to like the direction it's going in now - with the focus on public access to trails and rivers," Ryan said.
Ryan recently wrote a letter to the Vail Daily citing her support for the tax, and said she had plenty of response to it.
Ryan still supports the tax, believing that it's relatively recent direction of buying property the public can use, along with the fund's ability to provide local matching cash when applying for state and federal grants,
"People have some valid points about it," she said. Later, Ryan said she wouldn't be "fundamentally opposed" to putting the question back on the ballot.
But growing the county's tourism business is likely to have a bigger immediate impact on the valley's economic health. Ryan said it's important for the county to "have a role" in that growth.
The biggest potential role in that growth would be finding a way to pay for an international terminal at the county airport.
Ryan said international visitors could bring another $50 million a year into the local economy. But, she added, "It needs to pay for itself."
The county should also help as it can with drawing new events to the valley, Ryan said. A resident of Miller Ranch, Ryan said the athletic fields in her neighborhood are always busy. Bringing in more people for tournaments and other events would be a good thing, she said.
"Where there are leadership roles, we could take them," she said.
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or email@example.com.