Q&A: Summit County commissioner District 3 candidates discuss pandemic policy, budget shortfalls and cost of living
The debate around coronavirus public health orders often pits the economy against human life. What do you think the county did right and wrong in the first six months of pandemic response?
Summit County confirmed Colorado’s first case of COVID-19 in early March. County health officials had little data on which to react, yet they responded quickly with health ordinances recommended by state agencies. Early stay-at-home orders, business restrictions and physical distancing protocols successfully reduced the spread of cases in our community early on.
In spring, health officials strategized the best way to preserve our economy during the more profitable summer months was to prioritize the health of our workforce and county. Early communication was uneven as public officials were working nonstop and responding to new scientific data. Transparency surrounding decision-making improved with the additions of more diverse public relations efforts and essential staff that offered more meaningful, more equitable communications.
Wearing protective face coverings, safe physical distancing and regular hand-washing continue to keep businesses open and workers healthy. For the first six months, Summit County’s health policies kept cases, probable cases, deaths and hospitalizations low. These ordinances provided most businesses platforms on which to diversify services and goods sold, establish new operational procedures and increase efficiencies. County health officials should be commended for improving communication strategies, implementing data-informed health policies and prioritizing keeping business open.
— Josh Blanchard
Having served on the Silverthorne Town Council for 10 years, I can tell you it is not easy to be omniscient when peoples’ health, jobs and businesses are hanging in the balance and your decision really matters. Public officials need to gather the best experts, facts and public input available at the time and make the best decisions they can with the information. Overall, Public Health Director Amy Wineland and her team have done a commendable job of balancing the need to safely keep our businesses open and people working with practical approaches to keep the coronavirus from spreading.
This is no small task when our economy is so dependent upon visitors. Hindsight being 20/20, I would have liked to see the county move more quickly to review industry recovery plans in late April. The restaurant, lodging and resort industries were way ahead of the public process when crafting reopening plans. While government was forming Recovery and Resilience Committees, industry already had developed plans available for review and approval. Regardless, the county has maintained good balance. My No. 1 goal going forward is to keep our economy safely open for business and working residents.
— Bruce Butler
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There was no blueprint for how to make policy during this pandemic. In light of that, I think that the county responded well. Let it be known that human life cannot have a dollar amount placed on it. We needed responses that kept people safe. Due to the speed of the virus, swift action was required.
So much of our knowledge was changing every hour that adaptation was the name of the game. A policy enacted one day had holes shot in it the next. Now that we know more about the virus, I think we can allow for more time to develop policy that reflects the needs of the community.
As a small-business owner, I do wish that we were able to work with more options before such sudden closures. My understanding is that many industries and businesses had contingency plans A-Z and most were not able to implement any of them before being forced to close. Understandably, some of the regulations came from state orders that the county had to enforce. However, every time I read of a business closure because of COVID restrictions, I look at that as a COVID casualty.
— Erin Young
How do you plan to help Summit County’s economy recover from the pandemic, and how would those proposals help individuals and businesses?
It is essential to keep businesses open and residents working. While Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco and Silverthorne deserve credit for thinking outside the box creating open-air market and dining opportunities over the summer, Summit County must do all it can to keep our ski resorts open for business this winter. Whatever your opinion of the modern ski industry, its operational success is essential to every other segment of our local economy.
I think the county could assist local businesses by moving to quarterly tax payments, which helps cashflow and prevents the county taxes from all hitting at the same time as state and federal taxes. The county also needs to consider operational flexibility for certain types of businesses, within safety parameters. The county must also work with local health providers, the Summit Community Care Clinic, the Family & Intercultural Resource Center, the Summit Chamber of Commerce and others to make a vaccine easily and readily accessible once one becomes available. Finally, it makes sense to use 5A housing funds to provide critical rent or mortgage assistance for individuals who have been severely economically impacted and are at-risk of losing their housing due to coronavirus mandates. There is no workforce without housing.
The county will be faced with its own budget shortfalls as we recover from the pandemic, but if the county continues to lose long-term residents and independent businesses, the consequences will be long-term. Any county assistance should prioritize these two areas.
There are ways to offer money in the pocket as well as money off the bills to help. For example, this could include moratoriums in sales tax paid from businesses in certain size brackets. Or this could include small stipends for utility payments or negotiations with utility companies to reduce package rates.
As for the county budget, you would be surprised how creative an organization can be when it is faced with scarcity. Everything should be put on the table and everything should prove its use. Perhaps everything has a legitimate use or has legal hamstrings; maybe we’ll find savings in an interest rate somewhere, a small fee increase elsewhere. There are opportunities for resourceful savings that could carry forward beyond this crisis.
Economic stability planning that includes prioritizing public health is essential. As the executive director of one of Summit County’s leading arts-focused small businesses, and as a longtime contracted employee at one of Breckenridge’s top event-planning businesses, I’ve experienced how public health policies aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 have impacted our operations, budgets, income streams and staffing. One of our most important resources in Summit County is our workforce; keeping our business owners and workers healthy is essential to our economy’s recovery. Scientific data should continue to guide policies that help individuals and businesses stay healthy.
Relief and/or the postponing of financial burdens including utilities costs, licensing/regulatory fees and taxes for hard-hit businesses can help companies through times of intra-period cash flow fluctuations. Local relief funds offering financial relief such as zero or low-interest loans could help businesses open and keep workers employed. Offering resources for businesses to gain insight into market diversification, innovative operational adjustments and reduction of nonessential services and goods can help businesses become more streamlined and efficient. Supporting flexibility and adjustments, like moving operations outside during winter months, can help businesses stay open and workers keep their jobs as we move toward recovery.
Summit County is becoming increasingly unaffordable for the local workforce. What solutions would you work to implement, specifically addressing housing and wages?
Fortunately, market economics have created relatively fair wages in Summit County. (Yes, there are exceptions, and my time served on the minimum wage task force debated this for hours.) What challenges most of the local workforce is the price of housing, rental or ownership. Nearly all restaurant workers spend more than 40% of their wages on a roof over their heads (not a full house, but a roof) that they then share with two to four other people. Or they have to prematurely move in with their partner to afford rent. Even with affordable housing units, workers need months of savings to afford the fees.
The county needs to look more creatively at becoming a stronger player in the rental and sales market. There are incentive measures that can encourage affordable long-term rentals that will help shorten the distance between the rungs on the ladder toward housing sustainability. There is no silver bullet to housing in an area with such high costs of living, but we can make the steps more manageable so that good workers don’t continue to leave for cheaper pastures.
Summit County would benefit from developing an even more diverse mix of housing types that include affordable ownership opportunities and rent-controlled housing located in high-density areas with close proximity to services including transportation, health care, child care and schools.
Improving county guidelines and standards for deed-restricted homes and increasing the percentage of homes in new developments that can have accessory apartments would increase our housing inventory. Enhancing incentivization programs for developers to invest in affordable housing and working with property owners who own nonpermitted accessory units that can be turned into long-term rental units will also increase our housing inventory. Summit County can offer incentives to facilitate the construction of additional accessory apartments, including application fee waivers, the reduction in costs associated with sewer and water tap fees, revisiting building code requirements and adjusting unnecessary fee structures that discourage the building of accessory apartments.
Diversifying Summit County’s economy with medical, green and tech industries that offer higher-paying jobs means more opportunities for Summit County’s workforce. Partnering with Colorado Mountain College and other certificate and leadership training programs will lead to providing educational opportunities that enhance skill sets and experience levels for locals to access higher-paying opportunities.
High housing costs make it hard to afford to live in Summit County and often lead to high turnover in the workforce. Summit County needs to create an economic advisory committee to strategically pair housing options with employee demographics, income ranges and long-term employee stabilization strategies.
I am proud to have been involved with the purchase, planning and construction of Smith Ranch for workforce housing. Building opportunity and strong long-term residential neighborhoods through homeownership are what Smith Ranch is all about. However, homeownership is not for everyone, and Summit County’s economy relies on many people who will come enjoy all our environment has to offer for two to five years and then move on. This makes available rental property essential to our county and economy.
Summit County must proactively partner with our largest employers to provide employee housing. As county commissioner, I will continue to work with local towns and employers to develop additional rental opportunities for employees. I will also push to make multifamily-style housing for sale directly to qualified local businesses. This is a public-private partnership opportunity to make more housing available, to pair housing and employment and to build more housing with limited taxpayer funds.
Voters will be asked to weigh in on several tax initiatives, including a statewide measure to repeal the Gallagher Amendment, which sets limits on property tax assessment rates, and a local measure to override the amendment. How will you vote and why?
It has been too easy to amend the Colorado Constitution, and as a result, significant provisions of the constitution work against one another. The Gallagher Amendment was adopted with good intentions to balance commercial and residential growth and cap property tax contributions for both categories. However, the unintended consequence has been high commercial tax assessments, currently 29%, and declining residential tax assessment rates as Colorado’s residential population grows. I favor lower taxes and more money in citizens’ pockets. However, especially on the heels of coronavirus shutdowns that have hammered commercial properties, the Gallagher Amendment needs structural reform, and I support Amendment B.
That said, the way to fix constitutional issues is on the constitutional level. The precedent for local nullification of constitutional provisions is dangerous territory. It may be Gallagher today; it could be essential rights and freedoms tomorrow. Aside from principle and precedent, I believe the local ballot measure would be much improved if it capped residential property tax rates at the current 7.15%, should Gallagher be repealed, and if it also provided commercial tax relief. For these reasons, I will tighten my belt, work toward a more comprehensive solution and vote “no” on the local repeal measure.
The Gallagher Amendment is a nearly 40-year-old mechanism that stabilized residential property tax rates during the mid-’80s. While this provided relief to homeowners, it presents unintended consequences that impact government’s ability to fulfill its responsibilities of investing in quality services and programs relating to education, health, public safety, highways and roads, transportation and more.
I support Amendment B, which freezes property tax assessment rates, allows elected legislators authority for future property tax assessment rate decreases and leaves the decision-making power with voters to approve any future rate increases. I also support the local Summit County ballot measure as it enables the continuation of general fund services as well as voter-approved initiatives relating to early childhood education, mental health, fire mitigation recycling and more.
Colorado maintains some of the lowest real-estate property taxes of any state, yet our climate challenges, tourism-based economy, high-trafficked rural areas, high insurance rates and disproportionate behavioral and mental health challenges require meaningful investment from public funds. I support tightening local spending, focusing on essential services and programs during these uncertain times. But we must also address the short-term and long-term implications of future revenue loss due to the framework this well-intended but outlived legislation now poses.
I think that the repealing of Gallagher will create a more reliable funding source for counties, towns and special districts to budget from. Few of these entities write ballot tax measures in a dollar form, meaning that most are subject to the ebbs and flows of property assessment. When times are good, they’re very good, but when times get tough, budgets run short. This is not an easy way to budget and can become too reliant on inconsistent funds. A repeal of Gallagher will allow taxing entities to operate with a more predictable funding stream.
Many argue that it would allow the state Legislature to arbitrarily raise property taxes, without the balance against commercial rates. With TABOR, all governing bodies would still need to go to the people and make their case for an increase in property tax.
Let’s face it, very rarely has any private organization seen a cost savings and passed it directly along to the consumer. Most private companies incorporate the savings into their business plans and either raise wages, make capital improvements or strengthen their emergency reserves. Gallagher has seen a cost savings to Colorado homeowners for decades.
The condemnation of a conservation easement at Fiester Preserve to develop senior housing was a hot-button issue before the pandemic. Where do you stand?
The conversation surrounding the Fiester Preserve reminds us how differences in community values and priorities can lead to clash during policy-making processes.
Public opinion in the winter was that local voices were being ignored. After a brief hiatus, an ongoing public discussion involving the key parties is now taking place. The goals are to consider diverse community needs and values while forging appropriate, affordable solutions.
I support transparent communication that builds trust between county officials and the public. Listening to and incorporating community values into decision-making is important.
Easements should be preserved. And yet, we need to acknowledge that the conditions of Summit County are changing. Residents and elected officials share a duty as environmental stewards to responsibly evaluate land use over time.
There is a workable solution to this issue. It may involve a redesign of the County Commons campus that will maximize usage and development opportunities. It may include an equitable land trade. It may include a solution that has not yet been thought up. But one thing is clear to me: Community input and working together through a public process will lead to the best decision.
Generally speaking, I do not support converting our open space into housing developments. I understand that keeping our seniors in Summit when they no longer can support independent living will create great diversity, history and opportunity for our community. I believe that we have other prospects to look at including redevelopment. I am open to a dialogue regarding these decisions.
It is unfortunate the current county commissioners’ desired location for a senior housing site drove a wedge between Bill’s Ranch neighbors, open space preservationists, property rights advocates and seniors. Senior housing should be an item of community agreement. If elected county commissioner in November, I will welcome the opportunity to work with local municipalities and the senior community to explore suitable sites to accommodate senior housing needs that do not divide the community and neighbors over the use of eminent domain.
The use of eminent domain should always be an avenue of last resort and reserved for clear public purposes. Use of condemnation to extinguish the Fiester Preserve conservation easement would have a devastating chilling effect on future conservation easements and breaks faith with the community and landowners who want to voluntarily conserve open space for future generations. In summary, I oppose the use of eminent domain condemnation to extinguish the conservation easement at Fiester Preserve.
Silverthorne residents Josh Blanchard, a Democrat; Bruce Butler, an independent; and Erin Young, unaffiliated, are running for the Summit Board of County Commissioners in District 3.
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