Basalt, El Jebel to help choose Eagle County commissioners
October 18, 2012
EAGLE COUNTY – Eagle County voters, including those in the Basalt and El Jebel areas, will select two county commissioners in the Nov. 6 election.
Incumbent Peter Runyon cannot run again in District 1 because of term limits. The seat is being sought by three candidates, Republican Jeff Layman, Democrat Jill Ryan and unaffiliated Dale Nelson.
In the District 2 race, incumbent Jon Stavney, a Democrat, is trying to earn another four-year term. He is facing a challenge from Republican Courtney Holm.
The election will determine two of the three commissioner seats in Eagle County. Following is a profile of each of the candidates:
Jeff Layman is touting his experience in the public sector as a centerpiece of his campaign. He was in law enforcement in Eagle County for almost 32 years, starting as a police officer in Vail in 1980 and ascending through various positions until his time as undersheriff of Eagle County from 2005 to 2011. He retired from law enforcement last year and now is manager of the unincorporated community of Eagle-Vail.
The experience in the public sector – working with budgets and staffing issues – prepared him for the duties of a commissioner, he said. And working for the public for 32 years, he said, prepared him to be an effective proponent for the public.
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The top issue that Layman is addressing in the campaign is the economy. He’s picked up on a popular Republican theme.
“Maybe one thing the county can do is get out of the way,” Layman said. Regulations, “to some degree,” stifle economic growth, he said.
When asked for an example, Layman pointed to Eagle County’s affordable-housing requirement. The county commissioners established “rigid” guidelines prior to the recession, he said.
“In this climate, we need regulations that are more flexible,” he said.
Layman contended that easing the regulations might help spur more development.
But that seems to ignore the fact that lenders are more careful with their money since the recession. Homebuyers can’t get loans as easily, so that reduces demand. Developers have a tougher time borrowing for their projects.
Layman acknowledged those points but said he still believes that eliminating the requirement that 35 percent of the square footage of a residential project must be affordable housing will reduce the amount of money developers must raise.
In addition, he doesn’t see a need for affordable housing at a time when the free market is flooded with inventory at prices significantly lower than four years ago. Subsidized housing units “compete with the housing stock we already have,” Layman said.
Eagle County government slashed its budget during the first years of the recession. It is at $31 million this year, down from $43 million in 2008. Layman credited the commissioners for the final number but not the way it got there.
“I don’t like the across-the-board budget cuts that they’ve done in the past,” he said. Some worthwhile programs took too much of a hit, according to Layman.
“Saying every department needs to be cut 20 percent doesn’t do citizens justice,” he said.
Layman said he would assess the value of programs and services when deciding what to reduce.
Layman’s philosophy on land-use issues tends to favor local control. The commissioners make the ultimate decisions, he said, but they should listen to the county residents affected the most.
“There should be an awful lot of listening, taking the temperature of the people that are affected the most,” he said.
• • • •
Dale Nelson believes the country would be better served without a two-party political system, so he wants help getting the ball rolling at the local level. He is running in the race as an unaffiliated candidate. He is beholden to no particular ideology and doesn’t have to try to please members of a party, he said.
“I think the voters are ready for it,” he said.
Nelson will bring the perspective of a small-business owner. Government inherently moves more slowly than the private sector, and often it could benefit from a private-sector approach to finding solutions, he said. Both his opponents are former government employees who see issues with a different perspective, he added.
In general, Nelson believes government’s role is to make sure the infrastructure exists to promote a robust private sector business community and then largely “stay out of the way.”
As an example, he pointed to the county’s “eco-build” regulations for new construction. Builders of residential and commercial projects get points for energy-
efficient design and construction. Projects must meet certain thresholds or there is a punitive measure, he said.
“I wouldn’t want to be told, ‘You have to do it.’ That would make me angry,” Nelson said.
He prefers to raise permit fees to “a level that isn’t overwhelming” and then give financial credits to developers that meet the eco-build criteria. It would transform a punitive process into one based on incentives. The revenues collected in building fees could be doled out as incentives, making sure the program breaks even, Nelson said.
Nelson wants to see a moratorium placed on the 35 percent square-foot requirement for affordable housing if not an outright overhaul. The requirement was “onerous even before the recession,” he said.
Instead of requiring that 35 percent of the square footage be affordable housing, he wants it reduced to 10 to 15 percent, which is more of a national standard.
Nelson said the county government is limited in the direct steps it can take to help improve the economy but not totally powerless. He believes that a $3 million investment to a county-owned facility near Eagle is wise because it could bring in equestrian groups from outside the area. Participants in the horse events would spend money in the area, aiding the tourism-based economy, he said.
On the other hand, he is less certain about county involvement in building a senior center because it might not generate revenue. Nelson said he favors spending public money on projects that demonstrate a good return on the investment.
• • • •
Jill Ryan said the primary issues she is stressing in the campaign are environmental preservation and economic development. As a member of the county Planning Commission, she said her review of a project includes how it affects water quality and quantity as well as effects on wildlife habitat.
During her campaign stops in the Roaring Fork Valley portion of the county, she’s learned that environmental issues seem even more important to residents there.
Ryan said there is a concern for good reason. Diversion of water to the Front Range has a direct effect on recreation on the Western Slope. It can affect issues from fly-fishing on the Fryingpan River to rafting on the Eagle Valley’s rivers, she noted. As a county commissioner, she would use all authority available to prevent further diversions, she said.
On economic development, Ryan believes that the county commissioners can play a role in two ways – promoting events that can draw people to the area, such as the USA Pro Challenge cycling race, and using the land-use process to encourage development of facilities that boost business.
During land-use reviews, there are often negotiations between a developer and government designed to make a project more appealing. Ryan said the county could encourage development of facilities such as a community center, which could host weddings and other special events that generate business activity.
Ryan is prepared to face tough budget decisions if elected. While the county has already slashed its budget, revenues for 2014 will likely drop another 20 percent or so because of further reductions in property values, she said.
The commissioners need to work with residents to determine the priorities for Eagle County so that cuts can be made in a thoughtful manner.
“The lowest-hanging fruit has already been picked,” she said.
Ryan also believes the county commissioners must look at boosting revenues, such as charging high fees for various activities.
Ryan raised affordable housing as a concern in a different way from her opponents. She said she would study to see if the Roaring Fork Valley portion of Eagle County needs a greater amount of affordable housing. If so, all options should be considered, including the county government building it, she said.
If elected, Ryan said she also would maintain the county open space program. While there have been some demands during the campaign to put the open space program back on the ballot for review of funding, Ryan said she believes that the program has widespread appeal. The majority of county residents appreciate how open space funds have been spent to provide access to rivers and public lands, she said.
Courtney Holm is undaunted challenging an incumbent finishing his first four-year term.
“I think that people want a change,” she said.
Many Eagle County residents are busy trying to make a living or avoiding foreclosure. They want leaders who can help get the economy going, so incumbency doesn’t necessarily hold any advantages on the local level, she said.
Holm vows to work to “invigorate the economy” if elected.
“That’s the most pressing issue,” she said.
Roughly 300 business in Eagle County have closed in the last three years, she said. More than 600 foreclosures have been filed countywide in each of the past two years. The number of new actions appears to be decreasing this year, but 375 foreclosure filings were taken through the third quarter of 2012.
“That’s really frightening to me,” Holm said.
County commissioners can make a difference by promoting the county and showing that it is an “inviting” place, she said. It can cooperate with other entities to create events and facilities that draw people to the county, Holm said, and the county can make sure there is “not a lot of red tape for business.”
Another of her campaign themes is the review of the county open space program. “A lot of people aren’t happy with how open space is administered,” she said. “A lot of the purchases have been private ranches.”
Those purchases do little to provide people with access to waterways and public lands that are easy to find and enjoy, she said. So Holm favors letting voters decide as soon as possible if they want to repeal or continue the open space property tax, which isn’t set to expire for several years.
Proponents of the program contend repealing the open space property tax will do little to relieve pressure on homeowners. The annual tax amounts to about $13 per $100,000 of property value.
County government still is facing lean times, Holm said, and further budget cuts will likely be necessary. Rather than taking across-the-board cuts, as the board has done in the past, she would review programs and services department by department to assess where cuts should be made and what essential services must be maintained.
“Cost-benefit analysis is how government should be run,” Holm said.
• • • •
Jon Stavney has a record to run on, unlike the other four candidates in the two races, and it’s one he points to with pride. Stavney believes the government has been fair and equitable to the Roaring Fork Valley sliver of the county during his four years in office.
The Roaring Fork portion had a population of 8,267 in the last census, or about 16 percent of the county overall. The Roaring Fork portion generates about $1 million in sales tax revenues and $1.6 million in property taxes. Of the sales taxes, about one-third went to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and a trails committee.
While the county doesn’t track what it spends from its general fund on services to the Roaring Fork Valley, Stavney contended the Roaring Fork Valley gets plenty of bang for its buck. About $2.2 million in revenues from the Roaring Fork goes toward the county’s general fund. That’s about 5 percent of the county budget.
County expenditures include plowing and maintaining roads, operating the clerk and recorder’s annex, providing health and human services and law enforcement – services that likely exceed the $2.2 million in annual revenues, Stavney said.
Stavney also contended the three commissioners have made a special effort to hold meetings in El Jebel on major issues affecting the Roaring Fork Valley portion of the county.
“You could easily have three commissioners who really do look at it as a redheaded stepchild,” he said.
Regarding his record in general, Stavney said the commissioners dealt effectively with the budget crisis. Although there was a lag between the time the recession hit and county revenues fell because of sagging property values, the commissioners pared back the budget in advance. The budget went from $43 million in 2008 to $31 million this year. The number of employees was reduced by 75.
Rather than making the cuts themselves, the commissioners delegated responsibility to reach the goal – a process Stavney believes worked well.
“We really put it back on directors and staff,” he said.
With economic development evolving into a major issue of the campaign, Stavney contended the county already undertakes a great deal of activity. It manages the airport, which is vital to the success of Eagle County’s businesses and tourism-based economy, he said. It’s also worked hard to maintain a desirable environment that people want to visit. The county government has spent roughly 15 to 20 years dealing with growth pressures, Stavney said. It needs to keep the quality of life intact and not dispose of the policies designed to maintain it.
“It wasn’t county policy that created the crash we had,” Stavney said.
However, he does support “dialing back” the affordable-housing requirements to something “more workable.” The county currently requires 35 percent of residential square footage in a project to be affordable housing.
Stavney also defended the county open space program, which is under scrutiny by his opponent. Some early purchases centered on preserving agricultural land that provides little benefit in public access to lands, he acknowledged. But later purchases have opened up access to sites along the Colorado River corridor, Stavney said.