Voters face critical choices Tuesday |

Voters face critical choices Tuesday

Matt Zalaznick

When you’ve cast a ballot to back your candidate or oppose the local property tax increase, then you can say you did what you could to change things –and you’re free to rant and rave.

President Bush is not up for reelection Tuesday, but there are several local and state races to be decided that could have significant influence on daily lives in the Vail Valley.

The speed of expansion in the mountains, control of water in the mountains, fighting wildfires, the legality of abortion and attacking Iraq are among the issues those elected by Eagle County voters will wrangle with Tuesday, from Avon Town Hall to Denver to Washington, D.C.

Sudden impact

Perhaps the two most significant races are those for Eagle County Commissioner and U.S. Senator from Colorado.

In the first race, incumbent Republican Tom Stone faces challenges from Democrat Gerry Sandberg and unaffiliated candidate Laurie Bower for the District 3 western Eagle County seat. Growth, affordable housing, recreation, cooperation between towns and the county’s economy are issues that have dominated the lively, sometimes fractious race.

“If we create a community with good schools and affordable housing we will attract more and new businesses,” says Bower, a former county housing planner who ran for the state Senate in 1996. “Employers will come if their employees can afford to buy a house in the county.”

Sandberg, an investigator with the District Attorney’s Office, says he’s concerned some people feel the outlook for the county isn’t real bright because of the economy.

“We need to work in the common view,” says Sandberg, who plans to leave his investigator’s job if he’s elected. “What I’d like to do to help the economy in Eagle County is to bring the county and all municipalities on the same page. I’d individually meet with them.”

Stone, a real estate agent who has been highly visible since his election in 1998, says the economy is one of the issues that affect most people in the valley.

“When we talk about the economy, we talk about peoples’ lives,” Stone says. “Families are having difficulties to feed and dress their children. It maybe predominantly Spanish-speaking people, but we’re all affected by a downturn in the economy.

“We need to diversify the economy,” Stone adds. “We shouldn’t have all the eggs in one basket.”

One of the most visible project currently being managed by the Board of Commissioners is the redevelopment of the Berry Creek 5th parcel in Edwards from an equestrian center into a major subdivision.

The board also oversees the operations at the ever-expanding Eagle County Regional Airport and is integral in allocating money for road repairs throughout the county. Two major projects are fixing up the Edwards Spur Road and dealing with sedimentation and water quality issues presented by Interstate 70 traffic at Vail Pass.

Race for U.S. Senate

Meanwhile, the race for U.S. Senator between incumbent Republican Wayne Allard and challenger Tom Strickland, a former federal prosecutor, is as nasty as the campaign the two waged against each other six years ago.

The two agree on a few issues, such as keeping local control of water supplies, but – as their ubiquitous attack ads attest – they are polar opposites on most other matters, such as open-space preservation, abortion, Social Security and the federal government’s role in the daily lives of Coloradans.

The race, which many say is too close to call, is being watched nationally as it could determine which party gains control of the U.S. Senate and Congress.

“This is the race that could determine whether Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land. The Supreme Court is anticipated to have some retirements, and Roe v. Wade hangs by a single vote,” Strickland says. “I’m very much pro-choice, and Wayne Allard is very much anti-choice. It’s a clear distinction between the two of us.”

Allard, unlike his opponent, says he supports allowing Americans to invest their Social Security in the stock market.

“Social Security is going to go bankrupt around 2016 or “17, according to most sources. The sooner we deal with the problem the better, but we need to give people the choice to stay with the traditional Social Security if that’s what they want,” Allard says. “New people coming into the labor market, if they want to begin putting that money into a savings account in a bank, for example, they’ll earn more interest than they would in the Social Security system.”

The opponents also have sparred on transportation, health care and the environment. Strickland says Allard has let the state down on mass transit. Allard, on the other hand, says he’s responsible for getting the state more federal transportations fund. But, Allard says, most transit decisions should be made at the state and local levels.

“I’ve been a strong proponent of using wind, solar, the fuel cell, biomass, geothermal energy,” Allard says. “It’s an exciting aspect of what I do in the Congress, taking on new scientific innovations, since I’m a veterinarian myself.

“Hopefully,” he adds, “we can get something that will happen and make a big difference in people’s lives as far as renewable energy is concerned, making us less dependent on foreign oil.”

Strickland, who also says he supports research into alternative energy, has criticized what he calls Alllard’s almost unflagging adherence to his party’s line.

Conference and council

There also are important races in two of the valley’s towns.

Vail voters are faced with a series of taxes increases to build a conference center in Lionshead, renovate the main fire station and hire more firefighters. The town also wants to make extensive street repairs in both the Vail Village and Lionshead to keep up with the approximately $750 million private developers will spend on new projects.

A lodging tax hike and temporary sales tax increase would fund a $46 million conference center proponents call crucial for Vail’s continued success as a resort town. A raise in property taxes would fund the street improvements and a fire station.

Supporters says the conference center is crucial to Vail’s continued success as a winter and summer resort.

“It is truly a no-brainer. I am comfortable in the belief that it will generate 100,000 room-nights a year, and we need all the room-nights we can get our hands on,” Vail Town Councilman Greg Moffet says. “We cannot market ourselves out of seasonality without this facility.”

But critics, like Vain Town Councilwoman Diana Donovan, say the project could be a colossal bust for the town because it will mainly benefit Vail Resorts.

“I think it is a huge mistake. If it is such a sure thing, why doesn’t (Vail Resorts) do it?” Donovan says. “They are donating the land, they do all the promotions, but they don’t want the risk if it doesn’t work.”

“It is a dog,” she adds. “It doesn’t make money; it doesn’t bring any benefits to the community.”

The conference center question –Referendum 2D – proposes a 1.5 percent increase to Vail’s 1.4 percent lodging tax and a 0.5 percent increase to the town’s 8.5 percent sales tax to raise an estimated $2 million in annual debt payments.

Referendum 2C proposes a 4 mill increase in property taxes – or $40 in new taxes per $100,000 in market value on residential properties and $120 per $100,000 in market value for commercial properties. If passed, the town expects to collect an additional $2.25 million a year.

Without the property taxes, the town may have to slash bus routes and make other cuts in municipal services.

“It’s always tough to ask voters for more money,” says Vail Town Councilman Rod Slifer. “It’s a tough sell every time you do that. This is a vote for Vail’s future. It really is.

“If we do this,” Slifer adds, “we can turn things around. It’s time to put the shine back on Vail. If we don’t polish our town, sales taxes will never come back up.”

Avon voters, meanwhile, will choose among 12 candidates to fill four empty seats on the Town Council. The town will also have a new mayor because term limits prevent the current mayor, Judy Yoder, from running for reelection. The new council will likely have to grapple with continuing construction at the Village at Avon, an uncertain financial future and Vail Resorts’ drive to build a gondola to Beaver Creek Mountain, among other issues.

“The most important thing they’ll have in the next four years is the budget,” Yoder says. “While the budget is always important when you’re in a growth mode and you have a lot more flexibility, if things continue to stay the way they are now, the budget will probably be the biggest decision they’ll have to make.”

The newly council members will be sworn in the Nov. 12. The council itself will then elect one of its seven members as mayor.

Language barriers

The ballot question causing perhaps the most controversy statewide is Amendment 31, which would dismantle bilingual education in public schools and force non-English-speakers into a more intensive language program.

Proponents say non-English-speakers are not learning English in Colorado’s schools.

“As a result of the current bilingual education programs in the state, immigrant children often leave Colorado schools never knowing how to read or write or sometimes even speak English properly,” says Rita Montero, the Colorado resident sponsor of Amendment 31 and former member of the Denver school board.

The amendment would force non-English speakers into a intensive and sheltered one-year English-immersion program. The following year, those students would be place into mainstream classrooms.

Opponents, however, say Amendment 31 will take control of critical language programs out of the hands of individual schools. They also say provisions in the amendment put teachers at risk of suspension and damaging lawsuits.

“The danger of the amendment is that parents and educators won’t have a choice of how they want the kids to learn. I’m against it because it’s limiting in the way we can teach children,” says Emily Larson, Title VII grant coordinator for Edwards Elementary School.

If passed, Amendment 31 could also harm students who already speak English, Larson says

“It could be potentially detrimental for all of our kids because we have a lot of English-speaking students involved in the dual-language programs, too,” she says.

Montero says a sheltering English-immersion programs is the best way to teach English.

“The complaint we hear over and over again is that Hispanics don’t get enough English instruction,” she says. “Parents of English-speaking students complain that having the non-English speaking students in and out of the class diverts teacher’s attention.”

While most educators in the state agree students should learn English, opponents say they fear the program mandated by Amendment 31 is too intensive.

“One year could be too little for some kids to learn English well enough to tackle core subjects,” says Marisol Enriquez, a language teacher at Edwards Elementary. “It’s difficult to rush kids to learn in a short period of time. It can be intimidating.”

Land, liquids and lumber

Taxes hikes to keep more Eagle County land undeveloped and snatch more control of mountain water supplies also are on the ballot.

A conservation group, the Eagle Valley Citizens for Open Space, hopes voters will approve a property tax increase to create a fund that will be used to buy and preserve undeveloped land in Eagle County.

“The open-space fund will help achieve balanced growth in the county and help preserve the most important priorities identified in our survey – water, wildlife and our western heritage,” says Diana Cecala of the Eagle Valley Citizens for Open Space.

The citizens coalition would work together with the Eagle Valley Land Trust to identify parcels for preservation. The Open Space Fund would be administered by Eagle County officials.

Some of the strongest opposition to the tax comes from the town of Vail, which also has a tax to fund the purchase of open space. Vail Town Manager Bob McLaurin has said the open space will double-tax Vail homeowners.

“It is our belief that a countywide assessment to purchase open space is unfair to those communities that have purchased open space previously,” McLaurin said. “The town of Vail is a huge proponent of open space.

“But if we can’t be exempted,” he said. “it is our desire to seek reimbursement for some of the previous purchases that we made in order to make sure the tax is equitably assessed.”

If approved, the countywide property tax levy would go up 1.5 mills – an increase of about $14 per $100,000 assessed value of a house. The open space tax would raise approximately $2.9 million per year.

Sixteen Western Slopes counties, including Eagle, also will vote on the Colorado Water Conservation District’s proposal to increase property taxes to deal with dwindling water supplies.

Referendum 4A would increase property taxes $2.30 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. It will raise and estimated $2.5 million annually for 20 years.

“We need to secure local control over federally available water,” says Conservation District spokesman Chris Treese.

The Conservation District covers the entire Colorado River watershed, including Eagle County and all or parts of 15 others on the Western Slope.

In Avon, some are hoping voters will approve a 4 percent tax on all building supplies used in the town. Town leaders put the “use tax’ – Referendum 2E –to raise about $500,000 a year to support the Avon’s ailing free bus system. The buses cost about $900,000 a year to operate.

“The town had a shortfall last year, it had a bigger one this year and there will probably be one next year,” Councilman Mac McDevitt says. “And we need revenue to offer the services that everyone wants to see us provide,

“This is a tax on growth,” he adds. “It’s not an ideal tax – no tax is ideal – but I think it’s a good tax.”

But builders, such as George Plavec, say they’re being unfairly singled out.

“This “use tax’ will affect only a small minority of the population severely, i.e. builders, yet the proceeds will be used to benefit us all,” says builder George Plavec. “Of the approximately 5,000 residents in Avon who will enjoy these benefits, less than 50 regular and resident builders and developers will foot the bill.”

Capitol campaigns

Eagle County voters also will chose candidates to represent them in Denver and Washington, D.C.

Leadville Democrat Carl Miller, the incumbent, faces Eagle-Vail attorney Heather Lemon, a Republican, in the race to represent Eagle, Summit and Lake counties in the Colorado House of Representatives.

Water supplies and health care are two key issues in the race.

Miller supports tapping into the Denver aquifer – an expensive proposal. But studies show the aquifer holds 20 times the water of Lake Powell.

“By the year 2025, we will have 2 million more people in this state, more than 1 million of them along the Front Range,” says Miller. “The water-producing counties do not have that kind of water. We need to get the Front Range to look at that instead of taking water from the Western Slope.”

Lemon says she wants to build consensus among the state’s water users.

“We need to create additional storage capacity, fix existing facilities then look for other alternatives that provide for mutual benefit and multiple use for the locations of origin, as well as the end users,” Lemon says.

Miller says health care costs have been driven up by too many state rules and regulations. He says the state government requires insurance companies doing business in Colorado to offer policies that include all kinds of features, such as maternity coverage, whether you want them or not.

“We have to give employees and employers a choice,” says Miller. “We have a Cadillac plan. We need to be able to offer a Chevy plan to people who want it.”

Lemon says the health care system needs a “major overhaul.” And that overhaul would begin with tort reform – the kinds of lawsuits to which medical professionals are subjected. Lemon says some physicians are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in medical malpractice insurance –costs which are passed along to patients.

“Affordable health care for this district is almost non-existent outside of the major employers,” says Lemon. “There are counties in Colorado that do not even have doctors.”

To represent the county in the nation’s capitol, Mark Udall, D-Boulder, faces Republican challenger Sandy Hume, the Boulder County Treasurer. Both say traffic congestion on I-70 between Denver and mountain recreation areas is a problem that will only get worse in the coming years.

“The hospitality industry has a lot of concern about I-70,” Udall says. “I have had my share of sitting in traffic on weekends. I’ve written letters to Colorado Department of Transportation Director Tom Norton seeking to implement immediately adjustments and improvements you can go into without going into a major adjustment category to improve pull-offs and on and off-ramps.”

Hume calls I-70 the “the No. 1 one infrastructure problem for the state.”

“I support rail if we can find a way to pay for it. The problem with I 70 is that population densities are not as great as in urban setting where justification for rail is so plainly obvious,” Hume says. “There are no easy answers to it and it just worsens every day.

“Something’s got to give,” he adds. “We cannot continue to live this way.”

Udall says the state and the U.S. Forest Service have to change their way of managing wildlands and thin more forests – particularly around homes and water supplies – to protect Colorado from the destructive wildfires that scorched the state this summer. He says he’s also in favor of assisting immigrants who come to the U.S. to find work.

“I look forward to working with the business and immigrant community for common-sense proposals to protect workers who come here and also employers who employ them,” Udall says. “I hope the president, as he did before 9/11, would focus on this to provide additional leadership.”

Hume agrees thinning forests is crucial in preventing wildfires. But, he says, local and state governments have to take the lead. He calls the Immigration and Natural Service a nightmare.

“Something needs to happen to change the perspective on its mission. They are so far away from anything a rational person would say is reasonable. It needs to be restructured,” he says, adding that he believes all immigration should be legal immigration. “People wanting to come to America should work with a green card or other documentation that would make them legal participants in the system. We’ve done a pretty awful job of that.”

Head of state

Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, faces a challenge from Democratic businessman Rollie Heath to hold on to his job in the state capitol.

Owens has touted his achievements in funding education and transportation. He says his is the first administration in a decade to fully fund education, meaning the school budget was increased for inflation and population growth.

“In addition to adequate funding, we need to hold the line on standards and accountability started by Gov. (Roy) Romer in 1993 and continued by me,” Owens says. “You’ve got to keep pushing and measuring.”

Heath, however, the state education system isn’t treating teachers well or adequately measuring students’ progress.

“We need to stop demeaning teachers and begin understanding that 80 percent of success or failure of a child is dependant on the success of teachers,” Heath says. “We need to keep accountability, but do away with high-stakes testing where the state is a threat to take over schools. Put accountability back in the state schools by giving it to the local school board.”

To prevent a future water crisis, residents should be encouraged to conserve, Owens says.

“We do need to provide incentives for conservation – both household and agricultural, up and down the water system,” Owens says. “We also need more mountain storage and in aquifers. For example, Lake Dillon was very unpopular until it was built.”

Heath says a statewide “water summit” should be convened immediately.

“We need to link water conservation with land-use planning and also look at what we need to do to repair reservoirs and build more new storage,” he says.

Owens says he’s been working with Congress and the U.S. Forest to prevent a repeat of the destruction caused by wildfires this summer.

“Fires have pointed out the danger of having the huge density we have,” he says. “I was told that today’s federal forests have 10 times the trees of forests 50 years ago.

“I’m not suggesting going back to 50 years ago,” he adds. “But current policy is policy of failure.”

Heath says the state was caught unprepared by the unprecedented fire season. He says forests need to be thinned where houses and subdivisions have been built in forests.

“I’ve said Bill Owens didn’t plan to fail, but he failed to plan. We don’t have a fire plan in this state. We discovered that during the Hayman Fire,” Heath says. “We have got to require homeowners to have fire retardant materials on their homes, as well as thin the forests.”

Heath also criticizes Owens’ response to the slumping economy.

“I think he probably would say the economy is going to recover by itself,” Heath says. “That’s what got us into the position we’re in. We need to aggressively work our way out of this.”

Owens, on the other hand, faults Heath’s plan to raise taxes.

“He has made it plain he would be willing to go to voters and ask to increase taxes. He introduced a plan based on taxing the Internet. He also has a tax of $250 million taxing cigarettes,” Owens says. “But I’m going to have government live within its means.”

Contentious county

A slew of Eagle County posts are also up for grabs, including sheriff, clerk and recorder, and coroner.

Three long-time county officials, Sheriff A.J. Johnson, Clerk and Recorder Sara Fisher and Coroner Donna Barnes, are all prevented from running for re-election by term limits.

Eagle County sheriff’s deputies Joe Hoy, a Republican, and Bill Kaufman, a Democrat, are campaigning to replace their boss.

Kaufman has touted his diverse experience in the Sheriff’s Office –he’s been a jail guard, a patrol officer and has worked in administration –while Hoy says he knows the kind of policing Eagle County residents want and expect.

“Something I want to put an emphasis on is new development,” says Kaufman, who has been a deputy for 14 years. “No matter what law enforcement agency you talk to, the No. 1 issue you’re going to have is traffic – people are concerned how other people drive up and down their street.”

Hoy, a 13-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, has worked extensively in the public school DARE program, which aims to prevent teenagers –specifically seventh-graders – from abusing drugs and alcohol. –

“In general this is a very safe environment for kids to grow up in,” Hoy says. “But that age is a very critical time for kids. Their social world is expanding, their level of freedom is expanding, there is more expected of them, but they still have a lot of questions.”

Kaufman says a good deputy should understand the feelings of the people they patrol

“The difficult part of law enforcement,” Kaufman says, “is learning your community and learning their morals and character – and enforcing the morals and character that aren’t law.”

Hoy says one of his law enforcement philosophies is for residents to get to know the deputies that work in their neighborhoods, Hoy says.

“I want people in the county and our areas of response to feel comfortable when they see one of our patrol cars. I want them to have a familiarity with the people in the patrol cars and come to depend on these folks,” Hoy says.

Democrat Earlene Roach and Republican Teak Simonton, meanwhile, are running to fill Fisher’s post. And Barnes’ two deputies, Democrat Kara Bettis and Republican Bruce Campbell, are running to replace her. The coroner participates in all death investigations in Eagle County.

Races for county treasurer, surveyor and assessor already have been decided because the candidates –three Republicans – are running unopposed. Joyce Mack will be the new assessor, Karen L. Sheaffer is the treasurer and Dan Corcoran is the surveyor.

Term limits

In Eagle County, voters also can repeal term limits for the seven election positions –commissioner, assessor, clerk and recorder, coroner, sheriff, surveyor and treasurer.

A term-limit repeal failed in 1994, but many believe that was because the posts were lumped. Many felt voters did not want to repeal term limits for the commissioners, but may have repealed them for the other, more technical positions.

“I do think it’s too bad there are term limits for coroners,” says outgoing coroner Donna Barnes, adding she probably wouldn’t have run for re-election, anyway. “It’s a skilled position, which makes it hard to replace every two terms.”

County Commissioner Tom Stone, who is running for a second term this year, says term-limit questions were placed on the ballot this year so voters could could consider the office without having to worry about the incumbent in charge of it.

“The clerk and the sheriff said they didn’t want to run anyway,” Stone says. “So the Board [of County Commissioners] decided to do it during a year that would take away the personality from the issue – that way voters will be deciding about the office rather than the individual.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at Vail Daily staff writers Geraldine Haldner, Veronica Whitney, Cliff Thompson, Randy Wyrick contributed to this report.

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