La Plata County candidates running for commissioner and treasurer addressed affordable housing, land-use permitting and four-day workweeks Wednesday at an “Eggs and Issues” forum.
About 70 people gathered at the DoubleTree Hotel, 501 Camino del Rio, to see how the candidates would approach the issues ahead of the November election.
Incumbent Treasurer Allison Aichele and independent candidate Erin Hutchins were the first to address the crowd. Aichele, the eight-year county treasurer, was the first to give an opening statement.
She told the crowd about her experience as a bank auditor and implementing accounting systems for Fortune 500 companies. She said she was qualified for the job because she had a Master of Business Administration degree, a bachelor’s degree in accounting and certifications in treasury management.
Aichele said during her tenure as county treasurer, she implemented multiple technology services, including electronic payment.
“Party affiliation is irrelevant. Experience and competence in accounting, finance, property tax law and technology is what’s valid,” she said.
Then Hutchins addressed her credentials. She said she is a fourth generation La Plata County resident and a graduate from Fort Lewis College with a degree in accounting. Hutchins told the crowd she has been working for La Plata County for 11 years, nine of which she has spent as the election reporting administrator for the county Clerk and Recorder’s Office.
“This career has given me an opportunity to manage a team of four full-time employees and over 50 election judges during the election cycle,” she said.
When asked how the two candidates will work toward being a transparent government, Hutchins discussed her time as an election administrator.
“That’s literally what my job revolves around, being open and transparent, allowing the public to see what you’re doing at all times,” Hutchins said.
She said it is important for county treasurers to be transparent, because residents have a right to know where taxpayer money is going and make sure it is being distributed properly.
She said accountability and transparency are important because the county is audited by the school districts and fire districts.
“Anybody who calls my office, I’m happy to run a report for them,” Aichele said. “They usually don’t understand it, so therefore I actually invite people to come in and do a lot of training.”
The candidates were also asked about four-day workweeks. The county Clerk and Recorder’s Office recently started a pilot four-day workweek program, and the county has been evaluating it as an option for other departments. Hutchins said she is in favor of the choice to go to four days, while Aichele said she is opposed.
“The main reason is what is best for the county or most cost-effective for the county,” Aichele said. “I don’t have 10 hours of work a day.”
She said the Treasurer’s Office does not need to be open early in the morning or later in the evening because people would not contact the office at those extended hours.
“We don’t need people coming in during those hours, and therefore, it is not cost-effective,” she said.
Hutchins said the Clerk and Recorder’s Office is evaluating the positive and negative impacts of the four-day workweek through the pilot program.
“There is a cost savings to it,” Hutchins said. “The Clerk’s Office is saving money by extending business hours. Yes, we’re closed Friday, but we’re open after five and before eight.”
The extended hours Monday through Thursday have allowed residents to visit the office before and after work. She argued the Clerk’s Office also has staff members who live far from the office and appreciate the new schedule.
When asked how the office would manage single parents and their child care situation, Hutchins said the office works with parents to adjust schedules based on child care needs.
“One of our employees is willing to work Fridays, which allows us to catch up on a lot of backlog work,” she said.
Candidates for county commissioner gave opening statements and answered questions about their plans if elected.
Republican Brad Blake discussed his time as county commissioner, from 2015 to 2018, in which he dealt with issues such as the Gold King Mine spill and working with other county commissioners on homelessness.
Democratic incumbent Clyde Church said the county has made a lot of progress over the last four years. His top priorities are creating affordable workforce housing, building the middle- and last-mile broadband connection for rural areas, fire mitigation and facilitating economic growth to offset challenges presented by COVID-19.
Independent candidate Jack Turner said being commissioner is about hard work.
“These are tough and unstable times,” he said. “Some of our problems are historic and ongoing. Some are unpredictable or inevitable and some of our problems are due to a lack of preparation and insufficient response.”
He said there are issues that have moved from being an emergency to being a crisis, such as the lack of affordable workforce housing and the overall cost of living.
That opened a discussion about how the candidates can solve affordable housing issues.
Turner said the county is going to have to subsidize housing.
“I never thought I would have to say that several years ago, but there’s no way around it,” he said.
Turner is calling for deed restrictions on subsidized housing so people can’t purchase homes and flip them for profit.
Church said the county must continue improving and shortening lead times for developers through the planning department. He said short-term rentals are also a problem.
“They take long-term rentals away from our employees, and people come in and stay for a week and tear up the neighborhood,” he said.
Church said the county is devoting $3.4 million to various housing projects. He referenced the county saving two mobile home parks from being sold to private owners in west Durango.
Blake argued that less regulation is needed with workforce housing. He said the newly approved land-use code has added more regulations to workforce housing. He also blamed the state for deterring developers with regulations.
“The state of Colorado shot itself in the foot with regulation and a lot of builders left the state who did workforce housing projects,” he said.
Blake said access to water is an issue for developers that makes it difficult to build affordable housing.
The candidates later discussed whether the county is doing enough to foster development.
Church said it is important the county bring older homes up to the standards of the current land-use code.
“Building codes are intended to ensure safety and ensure that you have a process that you can go through,” he said.
Turner said he has heard concerns from property owners who want to make adjustments to their property but must redo sewage lines or undertake other big expenses in order to meet land-use codes. He said those are expensive projects that hinder development.
“We can’t cure all the ills of the past with this new land-use code,” he said.
Blake said the land-use code did not need to be completely changed, but it needs to be revised so small projects do not take two years to complete.
“We need to look at the process and streamline the process,” he said. “There are parts of the county that do have zoning and it seems to work pretty well until people go to do something with their property.”