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RBC I In their second question-and-answer session in a little more than a week, the three candidates for a seat on the Rio Blanco County Commission again took turns trying to distinguish themselves from the competition.
It may have been their last opportunity.
With an Aug. 10 deadline for turning in ballots in the mail-in primary election, last week’s political forum was likely the last time the three Republican candidates share the spotlight in a public setting.
The July 28 forum, sponsored by the Meeker Chamber of Commerce, gave commissioner candidates Shawn Bolton, Wendy Gutierrez and Pat Hughes one more chance to make their case for why they should be elected.
“It was great to see such a large turnout and the level of interest in our county government,” said Margie Joy, president of the chamber board of directors. “The county commissioner election is an important one for business. Our communities’ future success depends on the ability to have thriving businesses (and jobs). The Meeker Chamber appreciates each candidate sharing their vision and approach on how they will create a positive business environment.”
An estimated 75 people, representing both ends of the county, including members of the Rangely Town Council and Town Manager Peter Brixius, filled the community room at Mountain Valley Bank for a chance to hear what the candidates had to say.
A set of 10 questions, prepared by the chamber, was asked of the candidates, including a number that were given to them in advance. Following the chamber’s opening questions — posed by Ellene Meece, the chamber’s membership director, who served as moderator — the candidates took questions from the crowd.
Here are the questions and a sampling of the candidates’ responses:
What is the most significant change that is needed in Rio Blanco County?
Gutierrez: “The most significant thing is the attitude needs to change. This needs to be a positive place for people to do business. Rio Blanco County has a lot of things to offer. We need to make sure the rest of the world knows.”
Hughes: “Rio Blanco County needs to be in charge of its future, not just respond to problems that land in its lap. We need consistent, concise policies. We should lay out paths. There should not be roadblocks.”
Bolton: “We should start being a little more pro business. The anti-business attitude will do nothing but get this county in trouble.”
What’s your position on economic development and the role of the county? And should we consider hiring an economic development director for the county and both communities?
Gutierrez: “Economic development is critical for the future. The way we do that is to work with the chambers in both towns to build a team. … Yes, I would be willing to hire an economic development team as long as it’s growing Rio Blanco County, and not one town against each other.”
Hughes: “I would like to see some economic diversity and not just the highs and lows of oil and gas. If we do that, we can brag about our low tax base and try to convince some companies to come this way. … My understanding is there is money and grants out there that will supply this (economic development help). If anybody helps you free of charge, I’m all for it.”
Bolton: “Economic development is good, but you have to maintain it. It boils down to the business friendly attitude. We don’t have that right now. … Every community needs economic growth, but when you have overregulation and an unwillingness to do business with anyone who wants to come into your community, your growth is hindered.”
What role does the county have to ensure affordable housing?
Gutierrez: “The county and the two towns all entered into a partnership that covered both ends of the county … The one thing that came out that was loud and clear was what we need, in both communities, was affordable housing and elderly housing. … Our citizen base is aging, and we need to look at that and how we can help those people. That’s an area we need to develop.”
Hughes: “Local government should be aware of how housing needs affect our businesses. … I think we can encourage developers. There are possibly ways the county can help.”
Bolton: “If we’re going to talk about affordable housing … we need to break it up … affordable housing versus low-income housing. I don’t think the county plays a role in that (affordable housing), period. Government doesn’t need to be in free enterprise. Affordable housing will be dictated by free enterprise.”
How can the county help bring in business to the county?
Gutierrez: “The simple answer is partnerships. Partner with the two chambers. Partner with the two towns. … There are hundreds of companies working on Piceance Creek. We need to move those companies. Move the yard, move the family, improve the tax base, the more people spending in your community. It’s that simple. We all need to work together to get that done.”
Hughes: “We need to encourage business, rather than regulate everybody to death, so they choose to go outside of our county. We need to ensure a low tax base helps promote (business).”
Bolton: “Until you make it affordable here … for someone to come in here and do a project or build a new shop, you’re not going to get any business to come in here … until you cut the regulations. But if you do that, you’ll bring them in here. This deal of shoving them out, we’ve done it. They’ve wanted to come here … get rid of the regulations and fees and you’ll see this place turn around.”
What’s your plan to promote small business and more jobs?
Gutierrez: “Both towns could stand to do some annexation. … The impact fee is only in place if you’re building in Rio Blanco County. … To figure out a way to help those businesses move in, you may have to offer something. At this point, both communities are struggling. We need families and the only way you get families is with jobs and the only way you get jobs is to move those companies. … Annexation and expanding of infrastructure, that’s how you get that done.”
Hughes: “I, too, am a small-business owner. As far as constituents and business owners, they deserve policy makers who are willing to work with them.”
Bolton: “To start up a new business right now would be almost impossible with the new banking laws. … It’s almost impossible unless you have a large bankroll, and then you don’t need the banks anyways … I keep coming back to regulations and fees. Until we straighten that up, it won’t happen. … I think we start being more business friendly and we have a good opportunity to bring those businesses here.”
How do you feel about tourism?
Gutierrez: “That’s about the easiest sell we have. … We need to figure out the best way we can start communicating what we have here … the secret needs to be let out of the bag. Both communities, we lack how to tell them. … If we’re going to go after tourism, we have to do it full force, with better signage, better information. Tourism is such a huge animal … you have to be really willing to embrace it.”
Hughes: “Tourism and hunting are a large part of the economy. One of the things we have that makes these things work so well is we have the volunteers who work these programs. … The bottom line, I believe, is for government to get out of the way of this process.”
Bolton: “Tourism is great, but the main driving force behind tourism is your economy. … Until we get this economy turned around, you won’t see a lot of tourism. It ain’t going to happen. … If they don’t have jobs, they won’t take a trip.”
What’s your position on water?
Gutierrez: “Water links our two communities together. … We have to work with Yellow Jacket (Water Conservancy District) and the (Yampa/Green/White) Basin Roundtable. We need to be engaged with those groups.”
Hughes: “Water is our gold, if you will. Anything we can do to protect and preserve our water is important to me. … These various groups, they all have different ideas on how to protect our water, but they are trying to protect our water.”
Bolton: “As far as expansion of reservoirs, it’s great for everybody downstream. Anytime you can store water, you’re way ahead … it’s a win-win situation.”
What would Proposition 101 and Amendments 60 and 61 mean to Rio Blanco County?
Gutierrez: “In a word, devastation. If they pass, it would be absolutely devastating to Rio Blanco County. … What that would mean is severe cuts … we’re talking cuts into programs. If Proposition 101 and Amendments 60 and 61 pass, we’re all in trouble … the state is already looking at major cuts. … We have to make sure they don’t pass. They are very scary.”
Hughes: “Anytime we can cut, I’m all for that. … How fast they are going to do it though is reckless, so I’m voting no.”
Bolton: “I, too, will vote no. I don’t want it to affect our schools. That’s our future. Those kids we’re spitting out of these schools will be our next leaders.”
How do you feel about the size of government?
“Gutierrez: “As far as the county and city level, it’s more transparent. We all know who works where and we have an opinion on whether they’re doing their job. Most county departments are doing their job. … You have to assess if they are working within the realm they should be. … If a position is not justified, it needs to go away.”
Hughes: “I believe government should be limited … I feel government was intended to protect the rights of individuals, not infringe on them.”
Bolton: “It’s no secret, government is out of control and ballooned out everywhere. Everybody who came today, you came because you’re concerned. I think people in the whole country are concerned. … The best way (to change things), is to start getting involved. … If I can tighten in the purse strings (of his business) when things get bad, I think government should have to do the same thing. Government needs to be run as a business, not a free-for-all show. This is your money you’re talking about. You want somebody in there to manage your money the best way possible.”
What is your vision and what would like to accomplish in your term and what techniques would you use?
Gutierrez: “Measurable, sustainable growth is something I would like to see. I wouldn’t want to be in office four years and not see something change when I walk away. I want to see something at the end. I want to see more businesses. I want to see more people. I want to see more kids in our schools.”
Hughes: “My vision is to promote a stable economic future, to maintain infrastructure, to implement some common sense. I feel the best method (for accomplishing his goals) is with our residents throughout the entire county, to keep our communication open. If elected, not only do I want to hear from you, I expect to hear from you.”
Bolton: “The first thing I’d like to accomplish is to get the businesses here back on track … and get these fees and regulations under control. We can amend what we want to in this county. We have that power as commissioners.”
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Here are more comments from the candidates — in the order they were asked — addressing a range of topics that were raised from people in the audience:
Hiring an economic development director to serve the county and both towns …
Gutierrez: “We have to stop looking at this thing as triplets. … These boards need to be working together. … That won’t happen if we stay on these polar ends.”
Hughes: “I think both chambers have been focusing on this and they’ve been talking. … That’s exactly the place to go. They’re headed in the right direction. What can the commissioners do is to promote this, to see we’re all on the same page? I’m not necessarily for spending more money … but my understanding is there is plenty of grant money out there.”
Bolton: “The county working with the two cities, that needs to happen. As far as the division lines … I don’t see division lines in this county. The county as a whole, we make it or break it as a whole. These regulations have got to stop. They bring any progress to a screeching halt. You’ve got to get some pro-business people in there, rather than what can you do for me.”
County financing …
Gutierrez: “I feel the county has done a pretty good job keeping the funding … the historical use of CCTIF (County Capital Improvement Trust Fund), for example. That fund has served over $30 million in projects that both communities have been able to take advantage of. … The county has looked at it as we need to save for tomorrow, and that has been wise. Do we have to start making some cuts, absolutely. But how do we do that without affecting services?”
Hughes: “Probably the No. 1 biggest thing in our county has been impact fees. It has gotten more publicity than anything, some of which, I believe, has been unfair. The impact fees … that has been our biggest deal.”
Bolton: “As far as good and bad things, people don’t usually hear of the bad stuff, or we wouldn’t all be here. When these impact fees were initiated, we were the most expensive county (per well). When they were put in place, a lot of people didn’t think they would affect the residents. They thought they would just affect the oil and gas companies … not somebody who wants to build a barn or build a house. … If we’re going to adopt something, we need to read it. If elected, I’m working for you.”
Past attempts to spur economic development and what can be done differently going forward …
Hughes: “I don’t think you do it by throwing money at it.”
Gutierrez: “With all due respect, the economic development you’re talking about … it didn’t end well. But let’s back that train up. We had Rocky Mountain Bowstrings. Bill Rucker has done a fabulous job. There are two sides of that coin, I don’t think you throw money at ’em; you throw incentives. You say, come to our communities. This is what we have to offer. How can we get that done?”
Bolton: “If a company wants to come in here and you want to offer some kind of tax credit, there’s no reason we can’t offer the same thing to any other company. … The business people sitting in this room right now, we’re here for the good times and the bad times. We keep carrying this … if we’re going to move a company in here, let’s let ’em compete just like the rest of us do.”
Taxes levied by other special districts in the county …
Bolton: “Get it on the ballot. We have all the power right here. You’d be surprised what kind of power you really have, but you need to be able to stand up. You don’t have to be a pansy and let them roll over you.”
Gutierrez: “You have to encourage these boards to lower those mill levies. Do they really need those dollars? … They need to be held accountable back to the taxpayers. Currently, I don’t see a lot of that. I see the two towns communicating and the county communicating and the two chambers communicating … these small districts are not talking to each other.”
Hughes: “The commissioners should sit down and visit with them … the ones I spoke to would come right out and tell you, we have more money than we’ve ever had.”
Bolton: “These districts and the county will keep on taking and taking until we say enough is enough. … These boards are elected, vote them off. … We need to start taking back control. I would have loved to put money away this past year (with his business) and the year before that, but it didn’t work for you.”
Campaign finances …
Hughes: “I can’t tell you off the top of my head (how much money he has spent on the campaign), but you can go to Tracer (on the Colorado Secretary of State’s website). It’s all public information.”
Bolton: “I spent about $1,044. I set aside $1,000 of my own money. I didn’t ask for any donations from anyone. I didn’t create a committee. My wife has helped me a bit.”
Gutierrez: “I’m about $3,800 into it. Most of which, Wendy Gutierrez has put into it and (husband) Bobby Gutierrez has put into it. He’s my largest contributor. I’ve had five contributors, all less than $100. By and large, it’s all come out of my own pocket. A lot of that (she has spent) is on gas driving back and forth from Rangely and here.”
The future of the Meeker Elementary School building and plans for a new county justice center …
Hughes: “I would like to see our community get together and come up with some ideas and use it in some way. … But it is still the town’s decision. They are looking for a little direction. … The county would be interested in part of that (space) for a parking lot.”
Bolton: “Until that (property) changes hands … it’s up to the city what to do with it. If they want to entertain stuff from the county, great. As far as the justice center is concerned, I get the impression the people don’t want it.”
Gutierrez: “This is near and dear to my heart … I have a vested interest in more people downtown. … The town has washed its hands of it. We can go after some grant funding, but the town has to decide do you want the building, or are you going to tear it down. … My biggest fear is what we currently see … a chain-link fence with an empty building that will quickly start deteriorating. … I hate to say it’s your problem; it’s all of our problem. I think we should all be involved (in coming up with a plan for the building). An empty lot doesn’t do anybody any good.”
Differences between the county and the two towns …
Gutierrez: “I hope it’s fixable.”
Hughes: “There is a little animosity, I do believe, but I think it can be resolved. Some bridges that have been destroyed need to be rebuilt. I think I can do that.”
Bolton: “Any two people or two groups should be willing to sit down, but you have to be open minded enough to do it.”
Final comments …
Gutierrez: “We all have a lot at stake. I’m happy that there are this many people who are interested. I think with this many people you would have that diverse of an answer of which one of us has the best answers. I want to be the one doing it.”
Hughes: “Together we can make a difference. Go vote.”
Bolton: “Cut your regulations. Cut your fees. Start being a little more pro business.”