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RBC I The Rio Blanco County County Republican Party sponsored its second public forum May 23 for the county’s four county commissioner candidates, who shared ideas and opinions on issues they thought were important to county voters.
All four candidates are Republican and will face each other in the party’s June 28 primary. Rio Blanco County Clerk Boots Campbell said ballots for the primary will be mailed next week.
County Republican Chairman Logan Hill of Rangely then introduced the county commission candidates: from the west end, his father, incumbent Jon Hill, and the challenger, Jeff Rector; and from the east end,, incumbent Jeff Eskelson and his challenger, former county sheriff Si Woodruff. He then turned the forum over to moderator and former county commissioner Kim Cook.
Cook asked a series of questions Republican organizers had compiled, followed by questions participants wrote on note cards, then he allowed a couple questions from the audience. About 65 people attended.
Rector said we need to “take our country back” and that local government needs to more aggressively assert itself. “Fighting the feds is kind of my platform. We’re facing tough times. I love Rio Blanco County. I lived in Mesa County for 14 years. It’s too citified. The people are just not the same.”
In terms of tough times, Rector said, “We simply have to tighten up and hang on! Dollars are not going to be so easy to find.”
Jon Hill agreed, claiming the slowdown in oil and gas development means a continuing decline in county tax revenue. Added to that concern, he referenced the Colorado Supreme Court decision early last month that requires the state to pay back $100 million to $400 million, and maybe more, in severance taxes. The case centered on tax deductions that BP Energy said it was entitled to but the state denied. The court sided with BP Energy. The ruling paves the way for other oil and gas companies to make the same claims going back three years and going forward.
Hill said the Department of Local Affairs’ grants cycle in August has already been shut down. The county might well have to look at cutbacks beginning with the natural attrition of employees, Hill said.
All candidates agreed that it is critically important for residents to shop locally. Hill added that the county needs to help local businesses politically and complete projects like the current deployment of broadband connection.
When asked what the role of a county commissioner is, Rector recited a story of a little girl of whom he asked that question.. She said it was “to get aggravated a lot, save the animals and talk to the president!” After the laughter, Rector said it is to be a liaison between the people and their government, but not to micromanage —not to hold thumbs on anyone.
Hill explained that counties are the first line of defense against “higher government” and even other counties. He described how he supports federal land being transferred to state and local government but other counties like Pitkin want no change in federal land ownership. “We have to watch and work with these other counties.”
Commissioners are also responsible for making sure county government is transparent; that decisions aren’t made behind closed doors, Hill said.
Incumbent commissioners were asked about the status of CCITF—the County Capital Improvement Trust Fund. Hill reported that when budgeted in 2013, the fund was over $18 million. He and Jeff Eskelson pointed out that when it started in 1982, the fund was at $20 million. It’s currently projected now to be back to $20 million. Hill said the commissioners have been rebuilding the fund ever since he’s been a commissioner (2013).
The incumbents were also asked about how much the county has spent on acquiring the old bank building in Rangely and its reconstruction. The answer given by Eskelson was “too much, more than was budgeted, but we had done a serious analysis and we do need the human services workspace for the county. Hill agreed, said it turned out to be a mistake, but they both stated that there are risks in running the county’s business—and sometimes things don’t work out as expected.
As to what they would do to be fiscally responsible, Rector answered “keeping the checkbook balanced” and Hill responded that is exactly what the commissioners have been doing.
“Yes, the rehabilitation of the county courthouse is costing the county some money, but being fiscally responsible, includes fixing stuff when it needs to be fixed,” Hill said.
Asked about positions on the closure of county roads, specifically CR 66 to the Nona Powell Ranch, Eskelson replied that “closing county roads that provide public land access is generally not a good deal, but that we cannot let those in DC (BLM) call all the shots.”
Rector wondered how people could be so opposed to the county being sensitive to negative impacts on private land.
Hill said he supports closing roads that are no longer needed by the county and its citizens, suggesting a cost savings. In the case of CR 66, he said the commissioners were waiting for documentation from the landowner regarding the history. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has asked that the road be open for public access, but no one has taken any action in that regard.
Woodruff said he is characteristically not in favor of closing county roads, but in conflict situations, he said he would side with whomever is right.
None of the candidates favored a moratorium on the county use tax for private residences. Eskelson pointed out that it’s a tax that makes sense and is not a burden (2.8 percent on materials bought out of the county). Rector referred to the use tax as a “home run” and said one needs to look at the big picture. The county does need tax revenue, it’s an “important part of who we are.” Hill and Woodruff agreed.
On improving the county economy and increasing business, Hill pointed to the Better City consulting effort underway, and pointed to the county investment in Columbine Park, which should help draw activity in from the west (Utah); and the fairgrounds, “which we’re upgrading to be able to host events like the Colorado PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) rodeos, which to date have been lost opportunities.
Woodruff stressed shopping locally.
With regard to the Better City effort, he supports some of it. He doesn’t think the county being involved in providing housing for Natural Soda is necessary, however, as there are plenty of private housing options available. He urged that the county finish up all the current capital projects it’s involved with, including the more than $250,000 in the Rangely social services building restoration, before looking at new projects. He said he supports the expansion of the CNCC aviation program.
Eskelson lauded the Better City effort as a path forward that can open many doors along the way. It was never intended that the county fund all Better City ideas, he said. “We have to keep trying to move ahead on economic issues.”
Rector said, for him, it was all about our natural resources, keeping it all going. He said he feels about 50/50 on the Better City ideas. He doesn’t like the idea of a Rangely bowling alley with a restaurant. We have 13 restaurants in Rangely already, he said.
Specifically regarding the Better City hunting and fishing virtual reality center in Meeker, Woodruff expressed skepticism. Preliminary ideas take out a significant area and homes in Meeker and he wondered how 6,000 people in RBC would pay for a $10 million to $20 million facility. “If it’s such a good idea, why hasn’t Cabelas put one in Denver?” he asked
Eskelson described it as an idea that would be good to follow up on—that pathway to opening doors.
Rector had to “plead the Fifth” on the hunting and fishing Better City proposal as he simply doesn’t know enough about it, he said. He reiterated that Better City missed the boat on a few things in the west end of the county.
Hill mentioned that there may be a similar facility being built in Cameo. He then mentioned the importance of the Wolf Creek Dam proposal off the White River upstream of Rangely. All the candidates support the project.
On using local services for county work, Rector agreed but said that just because a person or outfit is here doesn’t mean they can do the work. Hill agreed but said we often have to go outside the county for the expertise, like with the broadband project, and, hopefully, generate new opportunities in the county while we’re at it! Woodruff said it’s important to have bids and not handpick people beforehand to do certain jobs. He supports something like a 10 percent preference in bids from locals, but that they have to be competitive, he said. Eskelson said the county has really pushed to use local services.
In answering a question about the importance of water from his wife, Fran Hill, Hill pointed out that the importance of water and protecting White River water from being taken by out of county is why he has been so involved as the county representative on the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable. The Wolf Creek Dam, he added, would help protect our water from compact calls.
Woodruff said he knew literally nothing about water and would depend on experts like Hill. Eskelson, too, said the commission relied on Hill’s water issues participation.
Dondi Glasscock asked how the candidates would cut back if necessary and would county wages and employee benefits be affected? Woodruff replied that if cuts were needed, he would hope such actions would be the last resort. He said he would cut benefits before people.
Eskelson described himself as one of those “garage-talkers” before he was elected and that he was surprised how well the county has been operated. Employees and benefits are the county’s biggest expense. People need to understand the value of their benefits package.
Rector thought the county needs to look at increasing collaborative efforts with all districts in the county.
Hill said the county is among the highest rated employers. Healthcare costs are a big item. Last year, he said. “We set salaries last in the budgeting process. They were dependent on what was left.”