Tuesday, October 27, 2020

County Commissioner candidates touch on main issues at CB News Candidate’s Forum

Housing, tourism, COVID and more

[  by Mark Reaman  ]

The live in-person Crested Butte News Candidate’s Forum resulted in a mellow affair Sunday evening at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts. A masked-up audience of about 20 people asked questions and listened to the masked-up candidates explain their feelings on a number of topics from affordable housing to increased tourist numbers and whether second home and property owners should have a right to vote in the county on issues that impact them.

Ballots should be received in the mail this week. They must be returned to the county clerk by November 3.

Generally, all four candidates, Jonathan Houck, Trudy Vader, Liz Smith and Dave Taylor, agree that developing more housing for working people in the valley is a top priority, but the challengers took issue with some of the recent land banking efforts in the north valley. All four would prefer to use Local Marketing District money to further expand mitigation efforts of increased tourism in the valley, while there was some disagreement on how to accomplish that. The candidates all feel the Little Blue Canyon construction project that will affect Highway 50 between Gunnison and Montrose for two years is a necessary inconvenience. All four also expressed that they understood the importance of funding mental health efforts throughout the valley.

Tourism mitigation and TAPP

Moderator Denis B. Hall started the questioning, as he inevitably does, by asking whether there was too much tourism promotion in the county and how that was changing the valley.

Houck reminded him that tourism and recreation was one key part of the local economic base, but said there needed to be efforts to manage overuse. He cited the Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) committee as a good example of TAPP’s (Tourism and Prosperity Partnership) participation in mitigation efforts. It also helps fund the Crested Butte Conservation Corps, which focuses on efforts to maintain the backcountry.

Vader said that while TAPP is doing a good job, it needed to focus on tourism impacts as well as promotion. She said the impact of increased tourism was not just felt on the land but also on the community as people working in the industry were generally low paid, and finding housing for those people was difficult.

Smith said as a commissioner she has pushed back to try to redirect LMD dollars more toward mitigation, given the impact of tourism. “We’ve at times been overrun,” she said. “Even this year with COVID no one anticipated the numbers we have seen so we need to redirect some of those LMD resources to mitigation of impacts.”

Taylor continued his criticism of the TAPP as a “bloated organization” that spends too much on salaries and subcontractors that provide content to promote the valley. “I am a big fan of STOR and a big fan of diverting a significant amount of those resources to aid in mitigation,” he said.

Citizen Susan Kerns asked if the LMD could just go away.

“I’m a proponent of totally reformatting the marketing district,” responded Taylor. “I think we’ve gone too far with things like the ICELab and spent too much on digital marketing and salaries. We need a major, major revamp of TAPP.”

“The LMD tax passed by the citizens is there to promote tourism and economic development,” said Smith. “Economic development is justified for LMD dollars and that is the focus of the ICELab. That will diversify the economy if we can figure out ways to bring in or grow businesses already here.”

“I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Vader. “But we do need to pivot with those funds. Housing is the number one issue in the county and maybe we use some of that money for housing. I also agree we need to diversify business. We need to completely revamp TAPP but housing has to be part of the conversation.”

“Your concern about over-tourism is shared by many, Susan,” responded Houck. “But the board of commissioners can’t just make it go away. It is a tax that was voted on by the citizens so that would take action by the community. We have revamped TAPP over the years with 20 percent of the budget now going to the ICELab and economic diversity efforts. And under state statute, we can’t use LMD funds for housing.”

Kerns said she found that not being able to use LMD dollars for housing issues caused by tourism was ironic.

Taylor said having 20 percent of the LMD budget go to the ICELab was a sign of “mission creep. If we don’t have places to house people with those jobs how does it all mesh together? Why can’t LMD funds be used to build affordable housing?”

Houck again explained that state statute defines what the LMD tax money can and cannot be used for—and housing is not allowed under the state rules.

Affordable housing

On the issue of housing, the Corner at Brush Creek proposal came up. Houck described the project as a “challenging situation.” He said the density had been reduced 25 percent from the original proposal but Gatesco, the private developer involved with the project, could not make the numbers work at that level. He then said the county bought acreage across the highway from the Corner at Brush Creek and eventually that would be utilized for some housing.

Vader said the $1.8 million spent on that parcel along with the $1 million spent on the Shady Island parcel near Garlic Mike’s might have been better used to assist Gatesco make the Corner at Brush Creek happen.

Smith said the deficit was closer to $14 million and not $3 million, and the county didn’t have that much money. She said Gatesco was the developer putting up the Paintbrush affordable housing project in Gunnison and the hope was that it would be used to show that Gatesco could pull off such a project. She said the municipalities might have to take the lead on a future project on the Brush Creek parcel.

Taylor echoed Vader’s concern about using the money spent on land for actual housing. “The $1.8 million spent on land banking that property could have been better used now,” he said. “As for the Corner at Brush Creek we need to get everyone back at the table and see if it can be done. Otherwise the county should look at selling that property to the other three partners [Crested Butte, Mt. Crested Butte and Crested Butte Mountain Resort] and use the money now or put it on the open market and use it for housing now.”

“It looks simple on paper but, sad to say, $3 million doesn’t go very far right now,” said Houck. “That new 13 acres will only increase in value and we will eventually build on that land we now have. Density will be the key but having land to use in the future is essential.”

Jim Starr asked the candidates if they would support a county ballot issue asking voters to support a tax that would fund affordable housing in the county. Such a measure failed four years ago.

“I’m all for finding a dedicated source of county funding for housing,” said Smith. “I’m happy to revisit that. Maybe we find a way to generate that income from short-term rentals. It needs to be done in a smart and thoughtful way.”

“Less than 60 percent of the homes in the county are occupied full-time,” said Vader. “I agree that short-term rentals can be used. They should be taxed as a business if used more than 30 days.”

“I don’t want to penalize locals who use short-term rentals to help pay their mortgage so they can live here,” said Houck. “But there are ways to generate revenue from STRs, especially with people turning houses into commercial operations. We have worked with the state legislature to begin looking at such a tax. We can do business licensing for short-term rentals.”

“The current county commission has underperformed in this area. I’ll shake every money source we can to raise that money,” said Taylor. “We need a steady financing source and that will require the will of the voter.”

Starr then asked Taylor about an apartment complex he owns in Gunnison that has broken windows, making it unsafe for tenants and raising their utility bills. Taylor said tenants in that complex are responsible for fixing broken windows but he guaranteed Starr he would fix them within the next two weeks. He said he was proud of keeping the rents in the complex very low.

GV2H influence?

Hall asked the challengers who had asked them to run for the commissioner seats. Taylor said he had made the decision himself, with input from only his family. Vader said she didn’t want to name names but indicated former commissioner Paula Swenson had approached her about running for the seat against Houck.

When specifically asked about the influence the new GV2H Political Action Committee would have on them, Vader said she told PAC organizers that if elected, she would probably make decisions they did not like.

Taylor said he too was not beholden to the PAC. He said he agreed with their issue about being told they could not access their property early in the coronavirus pandemic. “Property rights are the same for everyone and that problem has now been solved. Under the Coronameter, everyone who owns property will be allowed to access their property. Problem solved,” he said.

Houck said he has talked to not only PAC leader Jim Moran but also to many second homeowners and he believes most do not support the policies or tactics of the PAC. “Most seem to feel that when the local elected officials take care of the needs of the community it works for them too,” he said. “I don’t think the GV2H represents most second homeowners.”

“We all understand that second homeowners are essential to the community,” said Smith. “But I think a lot of people in the community don’t like the idea of out-of-state second homeowners trying to dictate local policy. A lot of people bristle at that idea.”

When asked by Neil Watco if property owners who don’t live full-time in the county should be able to vote on issues through a so-called “landowner’s ballot,” all four candidates said they would not support that.

Little Blue Canyon

County commissioner Roland Mason asked the candidates where they stood on the upcoming Little Blue Canyon road construction project that will upend Highway 50 for a couple of years starting in April. The project has been getting some pushback from some regional politicians.

“That bottleneck has been with us forever and we need to bite the bullet and fix it,” said Taylor. “It will be inconvenient but it will make the road safer and help tourism in the future.”

“The project will definitely affect people’s lives and businesses,” said Smith. “People are working hard to make sure the road functions during construction and that is important. It is important to get the word out.”

“It will be inconvenient but in the end it will be a better situation,” said Vader. “I agree that communication and education will be important.”

“A lot of planning has gone into it and the funding is there,” said Houck. “There are several contingency plans for various situations. We’ve been working with Arrowhead and have plans in case I-70 closes, for example.”

COVID

When asked about the county’s response to the COVID-19 crisis and how to move forward, Taylor said he was in favor of helping those considered most vulnerable to the virus but there was also some personal responsibility on their part to protect themselves. He said as it was becoming clearer that people under 65 were less vulnerable to severe impacts of the virus, the county should begin loosening restrictions for those under that age while recognizing the need for safety of those most vulnerable.

Smith reminded the audience that more than 200,000 people had died in connection to the virus and Gunnison County was at one time the third most impacted county in the United States, based on population. “We have taken good action and need to continue to stay safe so we can continue to stay open,” she said. “I trust the data and research-driven policies of our public health experts.”

Vader said, while a hard issue, there were businesses in the county that were suffering from restrictions and she advocated slowly loosening restrictions so that, for example, restaurants could get to a 75 percent capacity level pretty quickly. “Not a full opening but we need to give businesses some relief.”

Houck said he has been involved with COVID decision making from the day the pandemic began. “I believe in science and medical expertise,” he said. “What we’ve done has worked. We are one of the five least restrictive counties in the state right now. We’re in this for a while and we are doing the right work.”

Mental health

Melissa Mason asked about the need to address mental health issues in the county, considering the suicide rates of the past several years.

Taylor said everyone should step up as individuals to make a difference. He said he became a school bus driver about five years ago to perhaps develop relationships with kids who might need some mental health help.

Smith said she has dealt with suicide in her family and has seen the increase in anxiety put on students at Western Colorado University. She emphasized the need for collaborative partnerships to help address the issue strategically.

Vader too said collaboration was necessary to address the issue and it was important for people to have access to counseling when they need it.

Houck said he had personally experienced suicide in his family and it was important to provide services in the county, which have been increasing in part through state legislation he helped advocate. “These are desperately needed services,” he said. “And there are other issues like housing, food insecurity, wages and health care, that are all tied to stress and the mental health issue.”

Ranching support

Roland Mason asked how the county could help support the local agriculture community survive and thrive.

Vader said ranchers are scared to death about losing their grazing permits but water rights are a major concern. She said water rights need to be protected and infrastructure installed that could help conserve water in the area.

Smith agreed water protection was important and she said she would use her Western Colorado University connections to see if the university could add an agriculture education component to its curriculum.

Taylor said the cattle industry was stacked against the ranchers and the problem was the economics of the business.

Houck said he has worked as a commissioner on several agriculture issues with local ranchers, which is why many ranchers were supporting his candidacy. “When it is gone, it is gone and doesn’t come back,” he said. “That is why it is so important here.”

Other stuff:

Taylor said the county should expand the amount of money it budgets for roads in the county. He said road expenditures have averaged $5 million for last five years and haven’t increased.

Houck said the Shady Island project is important because the Colorado Department of Transportation has made waves about the safety of the current traffic situation at the Gunnison River bridge put-in near Garlic Mike’s and could pull the plug on the parking situation. He said recreation infrastructure is important to the community so spending $1.2 million was a good deal and if the CORE Act passes, it will be paid for by the feds.

Smith said being a county commissioner is very time-consuming and not a part-time job. She noted the millions of dollars in FAA CARES Act funding were awarded here because the county is really good at project management.

Vader said the forum didn’t touch on two topics she is interested in: the Golden Eagle landfill decision made by commissioners that overturned a Planning Commission decision, and a toxic water issue in Somerset that deserves county action.

A recording of the entire forum can be found at KBUT.org.

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