Teller County Ups Emergency Expenses to Battle Pandemic Threat

Photo by Tommy Allen

~ by Rick Langenberg ~

Despite the coronavirus threat, it’s business as usual for Teller County government leaders.

However, that scenario could soon change, with most of the collective financial damage from the pandemic not impacting the county’s purse strings yet. Officials, though, contend that won’t be the case within the next month.

In their first all-virtual online meeting last week, the county commissioners, with no hesitation, agreed to up the emergency allocations to $500,000 for expenses related to the coronavirus threat.

Sheryl Decker County Administrator at Teller County seen here with County Commissioners.

Under their current restrictions, approved previously by declaring a public health emergency, the county was limited to spending $200,000.  But the county has already neared that amount in government costs related to battling the coronavirus situation, according to County Administrator Sheryl Decker. “The major expenses are behind us,” said Decker, during last week’s meeting.

Still, she urged the commissioners to up the emergency total to $500,000 in amending their previous emergency resolution. Also, any specific expenses that exceed the $20,000 figure, must require consultation by the county commissioners.

Don Angell, the county’s director of emergency management, who now serves as the incident commander for the coronavirus-related preparedness, would play a major role in how this money is allocated, under the county’s plan.

Overall, the county leaders and officials indicated they are adapting to the crisis well.  To date, the pandemic hasn’t impacted the government financially too badly.

The commissioners agreed with the revised emergency resolution in record speed.  And although the coronavirus threat has grabbed the attention of the commissioners in the last few weeks, their April 23 regular meeting resembled a mostly business as usual scenario.

In fact, the commissioners approved contracts collectively for more than $1.23 million for gravel, construction, paving, rental and environmental work for various pursuits the county is embarking on. Most of these are for projects budgeted for in 2020.

The county has not had to pull back on any capital expenses—at least so far. One additional expense is a $10,000 per month lease payment for a surge hospital facility the county hopes it doesn’t have to use. This is a temporary make-shift hospital hub at the Gold Hill Square South Shopping Center. A former space, once occupied by the old How-To-Store has been converted into a surge hospital area, in case the county gets bombarded with extra patients, as a result of the pandemic. It is equipped with 50 beds

This expense did raise a few questions at least week’s meeting. The commissioner wanted to know if they could get out of the lease, if the surge hospital is no longer needed, or sublease the space. Decker indicated that the current lease extends until the end of December, but it did allow the county to sublease the area, if needed.

“I don’t want to get into a landlord situation, but want to make the best use of the space,” said Commissioner Norm Steen.

The potential surge hospital area was presented to the public recently during a highly publicized ceremony during which county leaders made it clear they planned to mount a staunch defense against the coronavirus threat, with comparisons drawn with an all-out war. “The surge hospital is a good example of being prepared,” said Commission Chairman Marc Dettenrieder at the time. “It’s obvious that we hope we never have to use it, but if we do, we are prepared and we have extra beds in case our hospital (UCHealth Pikes Peak Regional Hospital) runs out. We are prepared for whatever it is we may face.”

In fact, the facility is equipped to handle up to 120 beds, if needed.

Moratorium Declared on foreclosures;  Tax Relief Offered

Oddly enough, some benefactors of the coronavirus crisis could be local taxpayers.

Mark Czelusta

In a presentation before the commissioners last week, Treasurer and Public Trustee Mark Czelusta said their office is fully complying with Governor Jared Polis’ order to put a moratorium on any foreclosure action.

On the upside, Czelusta said the pandemic crisis hasn’t impacted the county’s financial bottom line too badly so far “Overall, it was a very good quarter for the public trustee,” said Czelusta.  But he admitted that their current numbers didn’t really record the statistics from the stay-at-home orders and an economy that was virtually shut down.

In his quarterly trustee report, Czelusta said the county only recorded eight foreclosures, which is down from last year at this time by about 30 percent.  He told the commissioners that no action will be taken on these foreclosures unless certain procedures were previously requested by the property owners. “There is a moratorium on them,” said the treasure and public trustee, in discussing current property foreclosures. “The judge is not reviewing these cases.”

And when it comes to property tax payments, the county is taking the same general approach. Czelusta said their office is taking a very flexible approach in handling tax payments.

And to date, he said delinquent property tax payments aren’t too bad. He cited a potential problem with 33 parcels, with a tax amount of approximately $58,500. The majority of the delinquent payments come from property owners in Woodland Park, according to the treasurer.

But Czelusta maintained that the county is not seeing too much of a decline in tax revenue. However, he expects to see this trend change with the impacts associated with the forced closures of businesses.

Decker told the commissioners that the county is now compiling an overall plan for the reopening of Teller. The governor has agreed not to extend the stay-at-home order from the April 26 deadline, but wants to implement a gradual reopening transition effort.

“We want to plan for what we can and cannot do,” said Decker.

And despite the stay-at-home order, the commissioners indicated no slowdown in meetings, only now they are being conducted online.  The Colorado General Assembly is expected to reconvene on May 18, with meetings not open to the public. The commissioners said they are evaluating their options for financial relief and for future legislation. But recently, they conceded there has been more questions than answers resulting from the pandemic impacts.

Public comments also have been a thorny issue with the all-virtual style of meetings, mostly conducted by the  Zoom conferencing method. This has been one aspect of the virtual style that has generated concerns. Recently, the city of Cripple Creek decided to postpone any public hearings, until the coronavirus situation lets up and it can resume more traditional-style meetings. The city’s attorney, Erin Smith, expressed concerns about the access to the public for these virtual meetings.

For last week’s commissioners’ session, all public comment was handled by email. No one submitted any comments.