Vail Valley Voices: The role of Eagle County government
Vail, CO, Colorado
There is a lot of rhetoric these days about the size and role of government.
Hear the national drumbeat for “limited government”?
Locally, I’m proud to have quietly reduced county government by 30 percent to match our revenues, showing that fiscal responsibility doesn’t require drama, or headlines.
Under a pure “limited” argument, we would not have national rail or interstate highway systems that make possible Rocky Mountain living. Modern supply chains make the market more reliant on government infrastructure than ever.
Best summed by President Reagan’s “government isn’t the solution, it is the problem,” the “limited” argument goes south when you ask citizens if they like good roads, strong public schools, and clean air and water.
Speaking of water, massive federal vision and investment built the dams and reservoirs that make living in the arid West possible. A lack of water storage would have kept Colorado, Arizona and southern California populations closer to the Dakotas.
While one anti-tax advocate would like to shrink government to a size where it can be “drowned in the bathtub,” I don’t think many citizens fantasize life as “The Road Warrior,” with anarchy on a backdrop of crumbling public infrastructure.
So dismiss the fringes on both sides. Nationally, we need a stronger moderate leadership that appreciates the interrelationship of government and the marketplace. Locally, I think we strike a decent balance.
At Eagle County, we do go beyond state mandates, which some would define as taking a more expansive role.
Local government plays an important support role in our quality of life, or I wouldn’t bother with public service.
Two cases in which the county stepped in to help Red Cliff are both non-mandated: first in helping build a wastewater plant to keep raw sewage out of the Eagle River, and recently by providing assistance when their water system froze.
The 450 employees at Eagle County Regional Airport and those across the valley who benefit from the $1 billion annually pumped into our tourist economy probably appreciate our expansive role in running the airport. It would be easy in the changing world of air travel to lose focus and lose business at the airport. That is why we are focused on growing business, planning the next 10 years through the airport master plan, and are striving to bring an international terminal on line.
Other “extracurricular” county activities include running a landfill, a recycling facility and a regional transit system while securing $8 million in federal funding for projects like the Edwards roundabouts.
Who believes Eagle County should have stuck to the limited role when it facilitated the community amenity that is now Miller Ranch — a campus that integrates five public schools, athletic fields and affordable housing, as well as thriving community college? What a tremendous, master-planned amenity that is to citizens of the central valley.
Housing is a non-mandatory role, yet Rebuilding Riverview Apartments cost the county nothing and provided more than 200 local jobs this past year. We need to dial back our guidelines for a better regulatory balance.
For the past 18 months, the housing authority has been working to bring a skilled-nursing, assisted-living facility for our seniors to the valley. That’s something the private sector has not been able to do. It would bring more than 60 permanent jobs to the valley. This is within our allowed powers, but far beyond our mandated powers.
The list of allowed, but non-mandated activities we do for public safety is equally as long, like facilitating hazardous fuel removal from our forests, preparing our deputies for SWAT-level duty, providing at-cost immunizations, and funding watershed protection — all “expansive” roles.
There are many allowed powers we don’t take on that some other counties do, like running a hospital or taking on general obligation debt. You probably didn’t know that Eagle County has zero general obligation debt.
There are many roles we can’t or shouldn’t take on. But the next time you see the “limited” government flag waved, imagine if the county had limited itself to only non-mandated endeavors and the federal government had done the same. Things would be mighty quiet in the valley without I-70, Highway 6, or the airport.
In such a world, county commissioners in my place might just be advocating that we try to be the next Oak Creek.
Jon Stavney, of Eagle, is an Eagle County commissioner.