Vail Daily column: Que sera, sera
The results are in and your new elected officials have been chosen. But as I write this I have no idea who has won, as it is Election Day and the counting has yet to begin. Regardless, tomorrow after session three of my Compassion Cultivation Training, Bill, Sage and I are headed to Lake Powell. There we’ll pretend my iPad doesn’t work, and I’ll try to disconnect and readjust my frame of mind. It was eight years ago today (more or less on the date) that I was elected to be your county commissioner for the first time. And what a true honor and incredible experience it has been for me since.
I never dreamed this voyage would take me from the highs we were experiencing in 2007 (real estate sales and all-around growth) to the lowest of the lows (2010 to present with a 35 percent drop in assessed value of property overall), to what now appears to be a climb back out (this next reappraisal sees about a 12 percent improvement in values combining commercial and residential), and now with highs of a different kind the focus and front-page chatter. Who’d have thought?
Throughout all of this, “we” at Eagle County did a darn good job managing your money. As soon as we saw the tsunami coming, we put together a plan to ride out what was headed our way in reduced revenue from both sales and property taxes. It was challenging to cut the staff by 75 good souls, even though buyouts were to be had. We had to curtail spending on early childhood and reduced transit service for those needing it most. At the same time, the demand for assistance in economic services and public health more than quadrupled in some areas as homes were repossessed and more locals were in need of a helping hand. Those who remained employed at Eagle County were asked to do more with less. And, that they did.
In addition to the changing economy, a few other things gave reason for changes in management at Eagle County early in 2009. We, Peter Runyon, Jon Stavney and I, chose to first spend time crafting guiding principles and policies (modified policy governance) by which we three commissioners agreed to function, focusing on setting policy then asking and letting our hired professionals run the show. It was in this process that we came to believe that Keith Montag could successfully lead our team through the downturn and out the other side. We also saw another huge need and that was to groom and grow our community-wide collaboration.
Before I came on board, Peter Runyon held the first quarterly gathering of town and county leaders appropriately named Mayors and Managers — the idea behind this being that working together on shared concerns had some real potential. The first two years of meetings were rather contentious, often quite siloed and not much fun. It truly took the economic downturn before the desire and the need for the towns to work with the county became evident like never before. And for some time this really seemed to work, giving a venue to come together on a few items of shared concern.
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We quickly saw results of how collaboration on projects (finishing up Miller Ranch, the Edwards roundabouts, extending broadband, fixing our own radios, widening U.S. Highway 6, ongoing road and trail improvements, emergency planning, etc.) really got things done, even when funds were tight. We also learned that when we work together and plan together, we are likely more eligible for partnering/grant funding as well as more likely to find sustainability when we focus on and stick to a county-wide plan. Thanks CDOT, Pitkin County, NWCCOG, Women’s Foundation of Colorado, Gunnison County, HAATS, Edwards Community Authority, to name just a few, for all we accomplished by joining dollars and senses to reach our shared and prioritized goals.
There is no question we have some wonderful minds in Eagle County and some very passionate and committed souls valleywide. With Montag’s departure this week (and soon my own), we are losing some experience at the county and history that I hope, for the taxpayers’ sake, won’t be forgotten too soon. The department directors, other elected officials and dedicated county staff not only weathered the economic storm but did so while realizing some significant accomplishments: senior care/assisted living, finishing the MRF and Household Hazardous Waste facilities at the landfill and the creative staffing thereof, the Valley Home Store creation and its sustainable services, rebuild of the justice center and detentions, investment in Stratton Flats (during the downturn it remained the only growing development, foreclosure and all), remodel of Riverview, refinancing of Lake Creek and takeover of management, replacement/pavement of the airport runway and enclosure of the baggage area, funding and installing the inline baggage system and needed remodels at airport, remodels elsewhere from Avon to El Jebel, building a new maintenance facility in El Jebel, river access purchases, open space strategies (saving the money, hiring Toby, doubling $20 million to $40 million), changing the county culture from fear to pride and ownership, and instituting the guiding policies and principles mentioned above and by which our board then functioned for three-plus years.
With Peter’s departure in 2013 (term limits) and Jon’s resignation a few months thereafter, I found myself feeling like the “sole survivor” of what was briefly my “fantasy island.” While we “three amigas” might look like we’re playing together nicely, that really hasn’t been the case, and for that I’m personally disappointed and really kind of sad. Our guiding policies were short lived and I guess I was short-sighted thinking I could change the bureaucratic status quo. As I said in a text to Peter last evening, “ … the organization that Jill Ryan and Kathy Chandler-Henry inherited was financially strong, physically healthier than ever before and emotionally happier than in a long while.” For all the hard work, all that I learned, all we accomplished and all the great friendships, I am and will be forever grateful.
I’ll be back after the long weekend to finish my term and facilitate the transition to the victor of District 3’s race. Where we go from here, who knows, but for now I’ll say thank you Eagle County voters, taxpayers, workers and guests as I hum my way out to a little “Que Sera, Sera” and perhaps some “Rocky Mountain High, Colorado”.
Sara Fisher is an Eagle County commissioner. She will leave office Jan. 13 after serving eight years on the board.