Teller leaders face major challenges in 2011

Nope, it won’t compare with the resurrection test facing the pathetic Denver Broncos next season.

But 2011 will pose some major challenges for the Teller County commissioners, who can’t rely on John Elway for “Hail Mary” comebacks and major financial cures.

In the wake of ceremonies honoring a new changing of guard, Teller’s new cadre of head officials, with a new commissioner and five other elected leaders, must now get down to business and confront some stark realities. The hot list for next year includes more financial hard times, the medical-marijuana controversy, gaming fund battles, transportation needs, intensive tree-thinning work and better government efficiency.

“It’s going to be a challenging year,” stated Jim Ignatius, who will assume the chairman position once again. Ignatius has held this post during four previous years. With last week’s appointment, Ignatius has set a record as the most dominant chairman figure among recent
Teller commissioner boards.

On the upside of 2011, the county may deal with a more business-friendly state Capitol, courtesy of a new Republican state House and a new governor, John Hickenlooper who has cited a better business climate as his number one goal.

Throughout 2010, the Teller County commissioners clashed with former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter on a variety of issues.

Money, Pot and Pet Projects

However, a growing $1 billion state deficit is making county leaders extremely nervous. “That is a huge deficit. It could affect us,” said Ignatius, who believes money, and diminishing resources, will become the premiere challenge facing Teller County. “We are going to have to look for more government efficiencies and deal with less revenue,” said Ignatius.

He is worried that state legislators may try to raid grant fund sources which have assisted Teller County in the past, in order to lower the deficit. Already, the Teller government has reduced its spending levels to that of 2008. This is largely due to a big cut in grants and in the county’s regular assortment of gambling-related impact funds. “We have had our gaming funds reduced significantly,” said Ignatius.

Besides money, the commissioners will enter the medical-marijuana playing field for the first time since the issue became so contentious.

For the most part, county leaders have stayed out of medical-cannabis spotlight, opting to wait until the state finalizes its rules. But with Woodland Park deciding recently to enact a permanent ban against dispensaries, and with Cripple Creek previously enacting previous prohibition, county officials will be under pressure to develop more concrete regulations.

Other than Victor, the unincorporated sections of Teller will become the prime local areas for future medical-pot dispensaries to sprout.
According to officials, that process will soon get underway with hearings before the planning commission, and then final action by the commissioners in early summer. At issue is the land-use and zoning regulations for current and future dispensaries, along with licensing standards and even possible impact fees.

Ignatius stated that the commissioners can’t comment too much on their position, until the process plays out.

But observers believe this could turn into one of the more heated debates. In previous comments, both Ignatius and Commissioner Bill Buckhanan have appeared to convey different views regarding the medical-marijuana situation.

However, one issue that will produce hardly any differences of opinion deal with the commissioners fight to retain their gaming funds. Teller and Cripple Creek are engaged in a big fight with Gilpin County over a tax re-allocation plan, aimed at siphoning $2.5 million-plus a year from tax dollars going to the local area. Gilpin officials say the money should be allocated based on the amount of taxes paid out by casinos in these respective gaming towns, and not based on adjusted gross proceeds, the formula used by the Division of Gaming for nearly 20 years). Under this plan, Gilpin and Black Hawk would be the big winners, while Teller County, Cripple Creek and Central City would emerge as the losers.

A side issue in this fight is a growing battle between Black Hawk and Central City, resulting in strained relations between the gaming sister towns. Some question if this tax re-allocation plan was developed in reaction to this fight. The main proponent of the tax plan, Gilpin County Manager Roger Baker, was formerly employed by the city of Black Hawk and was instrumental in the town’s decision to open the door for goliath, Las Vegas-style casinos.

A decision is expected by the state gaming commissioners in late February. The outcome won’t affect any 2011 revenues, but could play a big role in deciding the gaming tax revenues of future years and in determining the historic landscape for future casinos.

Teller also will move full-speed ahead in the transportation arena. Topping the list of big projects is a $800,000 paving venture on Teller Eleven, near the Evergreen Station. Half of this project is being funded by gaming funds. The transportation agency will unveil its specific improvement plans later this spring.

And timber fever will reign again with a major tree-thinning and fuels reduction project continuing on the north side of Pikes Peak and in sections surrounding Woodland Park. Teller has gained a reputation as the tree-thinning mecca of Colorado, and in fostering a new industry for using this biomass material for alternative energy purposes.

However, with the county getting fewer grant dollars, the government must become more efficient. This means the trend towards consolidation will continue, along with not filling key managerial positions that have been vacated. Ignatius estimates that 14 or 15 positions, vacated through resignations or termination action over the last year and a half, have been eliminated, a trend that requires county employees to do more work with less people.

Part of this trend is byproduct of tougher times and decreasing revenue. The county, for example, has encountered a big dip in building permit fees.

A tough year

As for 2010, Ignatius said he is glad the year is over. He cited the county’s ability to maintain current service levels, despite the financial storm that raged throughout the region and country, as a major accomplishment.

“We have a good team working for us. They think outside the box,” said the chairman.

Ignatius also believes the county really benefitted from having competitive races for three key seats. These included contests for the sheriff, clerk and recorder and assessor.

The competition for sheriff gained most of the attention, capped by a candidates forum that turned into an all-out debate between Mike Ensminger and Mark Manriquez.

“It was an interesting race with twists and turns every week beginning right out of the chute in January (2010),” related Ignatius. “I really got to know both candidates quite well. We really had great candidates for all the races. That was good for the county and got people more involved in the process.”

Last week’s ceremonies also ushered in a new changing of the guard. New Clerk and Recorder Judith “JJ” Jamison, Sheriff Mike Ensminger, Assessor Betty Clark-Wine, Coroner Al Born, Commissioner Dave Paul and Treasurer Bob Campbell have now assumed their new positions.
With these new officeholders, big changes could especially occur in the running of the sheriff’s agency, along with the clerk and recorder and assessor offices.