Bruell column: How powerful are county commissioners?

Debbie Bruell

County commissioners in Colorado wield much more power than most people realize. In less than two months, we’ll be electing someone to fill a $109,000/year seat as Garfield County Commissioner. It’s time to recognize what’s at stake.

The annual budget for Garfield County is over $100 million. That amount of money could go a long way toward improving the quality of life for county residents and ensuring a resilient economy for our future. You may be surprised to learn how our current commissioners have spent some of those dollars.

In addition to allocating funds to county programs and departments, the commissioners can also choose to spend county dollars on hiring individuals and funding efforts far outside of Garfield County. In 2019-20, the commissioners spent over $1.6 million on Front Range attorneys and consultants — all with the goal of overturning statewide public-health and environmental protections from some of the most dangerous effects of fossil-fuel development.

It’s also instructive to consider available funding that the commissioners have not made use of. The Colorado Childcare Assistance Program provides credits to every county to help low income families access childcare. Our commissioners have repeatedly failed to make use of all those dollars. In fiscal year 2020-21, our county left $600,000 in available childcare credits unspent.

The commissioners also act as a potential bridge — or barrier — to numerous state and federal grant-funding opportunities. During the height of the pandemic, the commissioners used their power to prevent the county health department from accepting state funding for a grassroots health-education program to inform local Spanish-speakers on how to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Even though the program had been successful in other regions of Colorado, the commissioners rejected it, largely because it allowed for the hiring of local undocumented community members as health educators.

More recently, the Colorado legislature announced the availability of about $450 million in grants and loans for affordable-housing projects. The commissioners were invited to join a regional housing coalition, which would have put us in an ideal position to receive some of this funding. Commissioner John Martin made it clear that he did not want Garfield County to pursue these funds: “The answer to me is no,” he said. “We’ll take care of ourselves.”

This tendency to silo our county off and work in isolation is unfortunately typical of our current commissioners. In contrast, more progressive commissioners understand the power of taking a more collaborative, regional approach to solving problems.

Former Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt initiated the I-70 Coalition, a collaboration of county and municipal governments that works with CDOT to develop transportation solutions for the growing traffic on I-70. Summit and Eagle counties still participate in this collaboration; our current commissioners have chosen not to.

Our neighboring counties also provide some remarkable examples of commissioners going beyond the bare minimum of their job requirements to proactively seek out creative solutions to some of the everyday challenges we face.

Eagle County commissioners have tackled the issue of childcare, recognizing the key role it plays in their county’s economic development. They created a childcare supporter assistance program, which has successfully expanded infant- and toddler-care services, as well as helped to recruit and retain childcare providers.

In Summit County, the commissioners established a county-wide wildfire council to improve communication and coordination among the different entities working on wildfire safety. These commissioners have also organized regular town halls on Facebook Live during wildfire season to respond to questions and concerns from community members.

Commissioners can also use their positions to try to impact politics at the state and federal level. Garfield County commissioners have made a public endorsement of Donald Trump’s nominee for Supreme Court, the ultra-conservative Neil Gorsuch and three pieces of legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who is now advocating for the impeachment of President Biden. Commissioner Jankovsky told this newspaper that his desire to influence state and national policy was driving his decision to run for a fourth term as commissioner.

In a county of our size, the commissioners also control which questions can be placed on our county ballot. That means the commissioners themselves determine whether to let voters vote on the question of term limits for commissioners. All three current commissioners have sat on the board for over a decade now: John Martin, 26 years; Mike Samson, 14 years; and Tom Jankowsky, 12 years. As things stand now, they could be allowed to continue running for these seats for another decade or two.

Whether it’s housing, childcare, traffic, wildfire safety or global warming, county commissioners have the power to impact the quality of our daily lives and the future of our county. It’s long past time for our county leaders to engage in this process in earnest. I urge you to learn as much as you can about our candidates and vote this November. 

Debbie Bruell of Carbondale chairs the Garfield County Democrats and is a past member of the Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education.

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