Candidates square off at Monday forum
EAGLE, 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”