After six months as ‘peacemaker,’ Garfield County’s Samson liking role
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – In his sixth month in office, Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson said he is a “peacemaker” in conflicts between his fellow commissioners. While still learning the ropes about what he always knew would be a full-time job, Samson said he hasn’t “had a bad day yet.”
The Rifle native told the Post Independent this week that he is applying what he can from his time as an educator who specialized in political and social sciences, but acknowledged in a wide-ranging interview that “county government is different” from the history and government courses he once taught at Rifle High and at Colorado Mountain College.
He says he is prepared to get calls at home, at the offices he has in Glenwood Springs and Rifle and on his cell phone at any time.
“I’m kinda on the job 24/7, and 365,” he said with a grin. “People call me. To me, the county commissioner level is the last level where you’re still in touch on a daily basis with the people.”
He compared his job to state legislators, who spend huge amounts of time in Denver, and members of Congress, who move to Washington, D.C., once elected.
Samson, 54, serves on the county’s emergency communications board (which oversees the dispatch system for the area’s emergency services), the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, which includes Routt, Moffatt, Rio Blanco and Mesa counties, and on the county’s oil and gas forum, which meets four times a year in Rifle (the next meeting is Sept. 3).
And it is the oil and gas industry that consumes most of his attention these days. He said the industry has dropped back from more than 100 active drilling rigs in the area to “only about 26.”
And one result of that decline, Samson said, is that “the biggest challenge that we’ll have is … when it comes to our budget. We should be all right for 2009, and probably 2010.”
But late 2009, he predicted, is when the lag in collection of property, severance and other taxes will catch up to the county.
And unless the national, state and regional economies have recovered remarkably, he continued, “We’re gonna have to tighten our belt.”
He said the process of preparing the county’s 2010 budget began recently, and that meetings will accelerate as the summer rolls along.
Samson is confident, though, that the economy will turn itself around.
“Will the gas come back?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes. Will it be like it was? I don’t think so.”
He noted that there have been significant amounts of natural gas located in such places as Pennsylvania and Louisiana, where the gas is easier and cheaper to get at and closer to population centers.
“There’s a lot of factors out there that are beyond our control,” he remarked.
He noted that the county does not have a role in enforcing oil and gas regulations, which are written by the state legislature and enforced by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).
And the COGCC, he said, may not be doing its job.
“I think the State of Colorado is shortchanging us,” he said, referring to the counties hardest hit by impacts from the oil and gas industry, such as Garfield and Weld.
“They [the COGCC] need more qualified people who are going to enforce the rules,” he said, although he could not enumerate the rules he felt were not being enforced sufficiently. Samson’s sentiments about the COGCC, however, reflect recent testimony from the county’s oil and gas liaison, Judy Jordan, to a group of citizens at Battlement Mesa worried about Antero Resources’ plans to drill for gas in Battlement Mesa itself.
Samson said he believes that gas companies make a habit of recruiting staffers from the COGCC after they have been trained in the rather specialized science of the industry, which means the state has spent time and money on the training, but only gets a small amount of the benefit.
“I’m not dinging the gas industry,” Samson insisted. “They need those people, too. The only solution is … you’ve got to pay those people more money” to keep them working for the state long enough to justify the cost of their training.
Asked whether the industry should be called upon to help pay the cost of higher salaries for COGCC inspectors, Samson said, “They [the industry] would say they pay plenty in the way of taxes,” a sentiment he said he endorses “in some ways,” as a believer in the Republican ideology of smaller government and lower taxes.
“Does that mean that private companies can do anything they want?” he continued. “Heavens, no!”
For instance, in Battlement Mesa some homeowners feel they were not treated honestly when they bought their homes, because it was not made crystal clear that they might one day have a gas rig next door. Real estate agents are required to disclose that buyers are not getting the mineral rights to a property, but nothing more.
“I don’t think that’s good,” Samson mused, but when asked if the county can take any action on behalf of upset homeowners, he continued, “I don’t know that the county can do anything.”
Regarding a suggestion by some that state laws should require real estate brokers to fully and clearly discuss the potential for a gas rig next door, Samson said, “I don’t see as I disagree with that.”
He said he would be open to a talk with state lawmakers, whose job it would be to modify the laws regarding real estate disclosure requirements.
Another big challenge facing the commissioners, Samson said, is what to do about the county’s deteriorating road system, a problem that was highlighted recently by planning director Fred Jarman, who noted that the county does not have the money to meet the costs of maintaining roads that are under constant pressure from gas industry trucks, a growing amount of residential traffic and other impacts.
“I think we need to study those issues,” Samson said, noting that county roads supervisor Marvin Stevens “does a marvelous job” but added that “there is only so much money” in the county’s coffers.
“I think Fred makes some good arguments,” Samson conceded, concerning Jarman’s conceptual proposal to raise impact fees on commercial, industrial and residential development to bring in the money needed for road improvements.
“Push has come to shove here,” Samson declared, saying the commissioners and staff need to sit down soon to determine how to deal with the roads, particularly since the state and national governments have no resources to send Garfield County’s way.
But, he said next, “Be careful” in any discussion about making the gas companies pay more than they do now.
Then there are the dynamics of the Board of County Commissioners, where his senior co-commissioners, John Martin and Tresi Houpt, often are at odds with each other over even relatively minor issues.
“I think I am the mediator,” he said, noting that as part of his campaign he pledged to smooth over the atmosphere at BOCC meetings.
“I’ve been a calming influence, to help get things on an even keel,” he said of his role, adding that a lifetime as “a communicator” serves him well in that capacity.
But he also was quick to stress that Houpt, Martin and former commissioner Larry McCown “did a very good job with fiscal responsibility.” It is his belief that, although the state and the nation are in “dire financial positions … Garfield County is in good fiscal shape.”
But county revenues are likely to drop in the next year or so, as demands rise, he said, leaving it up to the BOCC to determine, “How do we divvy up the pot? Who gets what? Things are gonna get tight, and we’re gonna have to tighten our belt.”
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