Jill Ryan takes lessons from Eagle County to lead Colorado health department
Ex-county commissioner looks back on Eagle County successes as she tackles state issues
EAGLE COUNTY — Jill Ryan’s world was upended on Election Day 2018.
But it took a few weeks before she actually knew it had happened.
On Nov. 5, Ryan was at work as an Eagle County commissioner, a post she was elected to in 2012 and re-elected to in 2016. But on Nov. 6, Jared Polis was elected governor of Colorado. Shortly thereafter, he began the process of vetting and appointing his new cabinet members. On Jan. 9, Polis announced Ryan was his choice to serve as the executive director for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Ryan’s resignation as county commissioner was effective Sunday, Jan. 27, and she began work at her new post on Monday, Jan. 28. She now oversees a state agency that numbers more than 1,400 employees.
Ryan’s new gig is actually a return to her professional roots. For 10 years she worked for the state health department.
“Then I previously worked as the public health manager, here, for nearly five years. That’s what brought me to Eagle County,” she said.
A Front Range native and a graduate of the University of Colorado, Ryan worked for the county’s public health department until 2009 when she decided to start a family and launch her own public health consulting firm. By that time she had fallen in love with both the area and a fellow Eagle County employee named Ty Ryan.
But running for public office had always held an allure for Ryan. She decided to launch her county commissioner campaign in 2012, while she was pregnant with son Daxton.
From the beginning, Ryan had a number of priorities as county commissioner — affordable housing, affordable health care, affordable child care and early childhood education, climate action and economic vitality topped her list.
“All of those things are very complex issues,” she noted. “It takes a while to move the needle with them.”
But as she looks back on her tenure as a commissioner, Ryan is proud of all that the county did manage to accomplish.
Ryan calls the county’s adoption of its first-ever environmental policy statement, with goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, one of her proudest accomplishments as a county commissioner.
“As a county, warming climate is so tied to our economy,” Ryan said. “Eagle County has a lot to lose with warming temperatures.”
With the Trump administration’s 2017 decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, Ryan said climate action has to come from the state and local level. But sustainable energy policy is also good business policy, Ryan said.
By offsetting more than half of its carbon footprint with solar energy sources and efficiency measures, Ryan said the county is saving taxpayers more than $300,000 annually.
“It’s just a fiscally responsible thing for local governments to do and Eagle County has become a statewide leader in this effort,” she said.
Ryan also became a leader in the work, serving as the president of Colorado Communities for Climate Action.
Throughout her time as a county commissioner, Ryan has worked on one of the toughest local issues — affordable housing.
“Providing affordable housing is so difficult because our land prices are so expensive up here,” said Ryan. “Developers have a hard time making the numbers work.”
That is even true when the county owns the land, Ryan said. In 2018, the county did ink a deal with Cassia (formerly known as Augustana Care) to build Two10 at Castle Peak — a 22-unit project that will initially function as local employee housing before transitioning to a senior citizen independent living center. But that project required a lot of heavy lifting from the county. Moving forward, Ryan believes both public and private resources will need to share that load.
“There just won’t be that many projects that the county can develop,” she said. “I just think partnership is the strategy going forward — local communities combining resources and working with developers.”
And, she stressed, finding answers to the local housing need will remain a vital need.
“Affordable housing is a key economic success,” said Ryan. “You have to have a place for the workforce that makes minimum wage and on up. Otherwise, you can’t attract and retain the workers you need.”
Health care needs
Beyond needing a place to live, Ryan noted that Eagle County residents need access to affordable health care.
“The county has been working with Mountain Family Health Center, Vail Health and Mind Springs for a facility where we can co-locate all these services with enough capacity to serve the local need,” she said.
She pointed to other efforts, including the MIRA bus program that travels the county to bring public health and human services to people where they live. The program was launched last summer. The county has also been working with state legislators on regulations to stabilize Colorado’s health care market.
“It really was a coalition of county commissioners advocating that brought that issue to the forefront and made it a priority for the state,” Ryan explained.
As a part of overall health, improving mental health resources has been a big priority for Eagle County, Ryan added. Passing the ballot initiative to fund mental health was an important local step.
“It’s not going to fund all our needs,” she noted, “but it is going to help us leverage with other partners to help meet the local need.”
As she looks at all the work the county has accomplished during the last six years, Ryan said that open space efforts may be the most popular. Last November, a 25-year extension of the county’s open space tax was approved with 82 percent of voters in favor of the ballot question.
“It feels good to know the community likes what we are doing with open space,” said Ryan.”What a wonderful gift to our kids.”
One of her fondest memories as an Eagle County commissioner has an open space tie-in. She recalled the day when former Gov. John Hickenlooper visited the area for the Horn Ranch trail ribbon cutting.
“A group of Eagle County employees dressed up in 10th Mountain Division costumes and rode their bikes to the ceremony. It was just so cool,” Ryan said.
Ryan was never more proud to represent Eagle County than during the Lake Christine Fire last summer. She noted local firefighters saved the Basalt and El Jebel communities and government workers and private citizens banded together to help their neighbors.
“We had more than 200 staff members working around the clock on that, for more than a month. It was the biggest emergency response we have ever had,” Ryan said.
Even after the fire was no longer a threat to lives and property, Ryan noted county employees were there to help impacted residents negotiate issues related to air quality, insurance, flood mitigation and more.
“It really was Eagle County’s finest hour,” Ryan said.
While Ryan is now working for the state, she plans to split her time between Eagle County and Denver. Just as she did when she began work as a commissioner, she has a list of priorities for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — saving people money on health care, expanding health care options, eliminating the Front Ranch brown cloud, improving health behaviors statewide and increasing immunization rates — for example.
“One of Gov. Polis’s values is to be bold and that has really stuck with my staff,” she said. “They really want to do big stuff to improve people’s health.”
She is excited about the challenges ahead and believes that she is the right person in the right place.
“I bring a rural lens to the position. I just felt confident I could make a difference in this role, for the state,” Ryan said.
At the same time, she said it has been hard to step away from a job that she loved.
“I am going to miss the employees of Eagle County. They are a committed, mission-driven group of professionals,” she said. “County residents should know that they are in good hands.”
At least one boulder will need to be blasted as part of the cleanup effort.