Elections, Pandemic, Crimes and Politics Lead the Charge For 2022

Trevor Phipps, Ric Langenberg and Bob Volpe

This week, TMJ  opens the magic crystal ball for 2022 and outlines the road map of top issues for the 2022 across the Teller and lower Ute Pass landscape.  There is no time for an easy exit.

Needless to say, it will be a busy time, fueled by local elections, a crime surge, development furor  and the problem of an ongoing pandemic.

Teller County

Living With Coronavirus

How to shake the coronavirus epidemic will command top attention again in 2022.

Look for more politically correct press releases from the Teller County Commissioners and Department of Health and Environment that suggest the health benefits for getting vaccinated, but keep the door wide open for personal choice and staying away from mask mandates and other restrictions.

The coronavirus will top the list of big issues for 2022 for the third consecutive year. Only now, officials may have to grapple with how to live with the epidemic on a more permanent basis, as there are no exit signs of this pandemic

Luckily, our numbers aren’t as bad as other larger  municipalities, such as Colorado Springs, and our test sites aren’t experiencing as many delays.

However, a big forthcoming decision, impacting Cripple Creek casinos and other larger employees, deals with a final verdict on an order from President Joe Biden, requiring private employers that employ 100 or more to require workers to be fully vaccinated or to undergo regular tests. These regulations would  be enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It has undergone several key court cases, indicating mixed decisions, and will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This will have big implication for Teller’s larger businesses.

More Bizarre Crimes Escalate

The days of reminiscing about the era of Mayberry R.F.D. in Teller County are over.

Anyone who has read the news in the past year or so knows that Teller County has recently seen an increase in major crimes including some rather unusual cases. From large illegal marijuana grow operations to cases of assault to police officers, the county has seen a significantly larger number of serious crimes that used to stay in the cities.

During Colorado Governor Jared Polis’ trip to the county, Sheriff Jason Mikesell told the governor that criminals getting released from the prison system too soon has become a major issue. Statewide there have been several examples of people getting released from incarceration early when they were charged with serious crimes.

According to Mikesell, many of the violent criminals the sheriff’s office has had to deal with inmates, who  keep getting released from jail after they commit major crimes. Expect more crimes to occur locally if major changes in the judicial system do not take place statewide.  That  is the prediction of Mikesell and other kay law officers.

Teller County Elections

It’s election time in Teller County in 2022 with voters deciding most elected positions.

For the 2022 election, the big competitive race locally will focus on the fight for the District Two County Commission seat. District two represents the Divide and Florissant parts of the county.

Currently in the position is County Commissioner Bob Campbell. Before Campbell was elected to the commissioner seat in 2018, he served as the county’s treasurer. Before he was treasurer, he served two four year terms as a county commissioner.

Last year, Divide resident and U.S. Army veteran Tommy Allen announced that he would be running for the District Two position. Allen has lived in the Divide area for more than decade and has more recently been involved as a volunteer with the Teller County Honorary Deputy Sheriff’s Association.

Last year, he spent much of his efforts raising money for the annual “Shop with a Hero” event. He has also served on the county planning commission for the majority of 2021.

So far, Campbell and Allen are the only two candidates running for the open seat. And since they will both be running as Republicans the decision surrounding who will be the next county commissioner will take place this June during the Republican primary election. However, the preliminary election showdowns will occur at the caucus and assembly stage, which occurs in late winter and spring. Voters will also decide the fate of a slew of other offices, including sheriff, assessor, treasurer and coroner.  Current incumbents are eligible  to seek another term.

And in probably the biggest personnel decision facing the county, the commissioners must pick a new head administrator to replace long-time government boss Sheryl Decker, who is retiring at the end of March.

Teller Sheriff/ACLU Fight

This ongoing battle is slated for another round of legal blows in 2022.

Just before the New Year struck, a panel of appellate court judges overruled District Judge Scott Sells’ order to dismiss the lawsuit filed against Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell. Sells agreed with the sheriff that since the jail funds itself through its own enterprise fund, he wasn’t using any taxpayer dollars to pay for the sheriff’s office’s 287g agreement with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

However, the appellate court judges disagreed and said that since taxpayer dollars were used to fund the sheriff’s office that the six taxpayers listed on the lawsuit did indeed have the right to sue. The appellate court’s decision means that the lawsuit will now go back to the district court for a ruling.

In 2022, several legal developments could occur regarding this fight.

For one, the sheriff could make the decision to appeal the recent court’s ruling which would then send the case to the Colorado Supreme Court for a decision. Secondly, the sheriff could choose not to appeal the ruling, which would mean it will come back to the District Court, where he would make his argument once again.

It is not clear what will happen if the sheriff loses this legal battle.  The lawsuit does not have any monetary value on it, but some say the goal of the taxpayers suing the sheriff is to get the agency to discontinue their agreement with ICE. However, others say that since the agreement has already been happening, it would be tough for the courts to force the law enforcement agency to stop.

Woodland Park

School RE-2 District  Overhaul and Merit Academy Addition

Look for these issues to take center stage and involve four-hour-plus school board meetings in 2022.

After a heated election race last November, the Woodland Park RE-2 School District now has nearly an entirely new board. Board Director Chris Austin is the only member of the previous board that remains part of the group.

During the election, board directors David Rusterholtz, Gary Brovetto, David Illingworth II, and Suzanne Patterson came out and said that they were “the conservative choice” for the school board candidates. And even though one of the elections were close, all four of the conservative candidates won their seats.

During the first two board meetings, discussions got heated. Topics that have already been brought up include the teaching of controversial subject matters and adding Woodland Park’s new Merit Academy to the district as a charter school.

In the next year, expect more heated arguments and the prospects of four hour-plus marathon meetings. According to new board president David Rusterholtz, the district has expanded the room the meetings are held in to accommodate more citizens and media members.

The first big issue that will be coming up for the board is the addition of Merit Academy as a designated charter school of the district.

Many of the current board members have spoken positively about adding the school as a way to increase the school district’s currently dropping enrollment numbers. They have also said that they would like to find a way to expedite the process to add more school choices to the district for parents.

During the next year, expect conversations about the charter school to pick up and become heated due to mixed opinions on this topic. However, it is likely that the school will be added, as the newly-elected  board members have  the majority vote.

It is also safe to say that residents should expect a number of changes to the school board’s policies.

During their campaign, many of the current board members also expressed their desire to change the structure of the school board to one that has more control over curriculum and personnel decisions. Expect some changes to be made to the structure of the board in 2022.

However, in a letter Rusterholtz recently wrote, he said that the new board would not be making any major decisions in the next upcoming months. “In the next few weeks, the Board of Directors will be on a listening tour,” Rusterholtz said in the letter. “The responsibility of an elected school board is to represent the people who elected them, set school policies according to the virtues and values of our parents and community, and assure its implementation.”

Woodland Park Election Fever

According to Woodland Park City Manager Michael Lawson, the biggest issue facing the city in 2022 is the spring elections in April. Up for grabs are four city council seats,  plus the mayoral position.

Lawson said that the upcoming election will have more open seats than previous votes. “Usually the election is just three council seats,” Lawson said. “But because we had Jim Pfaff resign, the way the law works, we have to have an election for the seat currently occupied by Councilmember Catherine Nakai. It’s kind of an interesting, unique situation. So, the only folks not up for re-election are Rusty Neal and Robert Zuluaga.”

He said that people can start picking up their packets to run for council this Tuesday. The packets then have to be submitted by January 24. Therefore, the city will know who is running for the four council seats and mayor position by January 25.

Another issue that could arise this year, is whether or not the Salute to Americans Veterans Rally will be held in Woodland Park. Last year, the event was held at the city’s Memorial Park and the city helped support the event by providing resources to help with traffic and park cleanup.

Late last year, the event’s promoter, Jim Wear, asked council for more financial assistance to put on the event. But the council said that they were not willing to provide anymore assistance than what they provided last year.

“He (Jim Wear) had made a request to city council a couple of months ago for some financial support,” Lawson said. “But the council said that we are more than happy to host the rally and provide in-kind services like we did this year, but the council is not comfortable in providing direct financial support to the rally. The council is a huge fan of the rally, but because the city doesn’t provide any direct financial support to any other event like that, we will only provide the same support as we did this year.”

Lawson did say though, that the rally still plans on coming to Woodland Park this summer. He said that the rally promoters have been working closely with the city, the farmer’s market, and the craft fair to tentatively put on the event on August 19.

Another issue that is expected to come up in the city this year is the dilemma of short term rental housing. Lawson said that many residents have recently been concerned about how short term rentals affect the city.

The city manager said that city staff is currently working on doing a needs assessment to figure out what issues people are seeing with short term rental properties. He said that he has personally heard several people bring up their concerns.

The other key issue facing the city is the hunt to find a permanent police chief. Lawson said that the city is conducting initial interviews this week and they hope to have the decision made by the end of January.

Lawson also said that the city has hired Deputy Interim Chief Rodney Gehrett to be the city’s permanent deputy police chief. Under one possibly scenario, Gehrett could get the nod as the city’s permanent police chief.

Changing Face of DDA

Last year, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) spent a lot of time entertaining possible uses for Woodland Station. Look for more news on Woodland Station in 2022. Possibilities for the property include a; multi-use commercial enterprise, commercial development with residential units as well, an entertainment venue, and retaining the property as open space.

With six new board members, including City Council Liaison, Rusty Neal, look for a shake-up at the chairperson position. At least two of the new members of the board, Tony Perry and Arden Weatherford, have had disagreements with the way the last DDA board was being run. Perry has already made a furtive move to have a vote of confidence on DDA Chairperson, Merry Jo Larsen at an earlier meeting in 2021.

Weatherford was the plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the DDA in 2018. Weatherford’s lawsuit contended that the DDA was supposed to give his group title to property at Woodland Station in exchange for them purchasing the adjacent Amerigas property and removing the hazardous old gas tanks from the site.

On September 12, 2013, Weatherford bought the Amerigas property and the tanks were removed by October 8, 2013.

However, the DDA did not deliver the land and this resulted in a lawsuit. Essentially, the District Court judge ruled both parties made mistakes and concluded that those were a wash as far as liability goes.  Weatherford was awarded for the increased value of the property in the sum of $127,000 for removing the old gas tanks, plus $6,586.54 in miscellaneous expenses, for the total of $133,586.54.

As a byproduct of this lawsuit and the apparent conflict between the previous DDA board and Weatherford, the new board voted to remove long time DDA Attorney Paul Benedetti last December. The search for Benedetti’s replacement is already underway, and a new attorney should be chosen early this year.

The DDA has been working on plans to make the COG railroad car in Bergstrom Park more accessible to the public. Plans include building a deck around the car. Look for this to be done sometime in the new year.

Cripple Creek

Bracing for a Record Construction Boom

Build,  baby, build.

This will emerge as the central theme of 2022, as Cripple Creek experiences the biggest development explosion since the arrival of gaming in the early 1990s.

Only this time, the boom is being fueled by new hotel projects, support businesses and new homes.  “We have not seen anything like this in years,” said Interim City Administrator Ray White, in describing a $100 million-plus surge in new construction,  a good portion of which will be completed in 2022.

But with this boom comes major challenges in addressing the issue of affordable housing and staffing  employees.

The main thrust of the new construction boom will get driven by two new casino hotel addition. Bronco Billy’s is moving full-speed ahead on its Chamonix resort, highlighted by a 300-room, four-star hotel with many amenities, and a mega, indoor parking garage.  The bulk of this project should be completed by the end of this year, with a possible opening slated for mid-summer 2023.  White rates this as the biggest commercial undertaking ever done in Cripple Creek in modern history.

A similar timetable has been proposed by a new casino hotel proposed by Triple Crown Casinos.  Active negotiations have occurred  between Triple Crown and the city over their project, which was initially approved by the historic preservation commission in early 2019.  White said Triple Crown is hoping to break ground on their new hotel this spring, with a projected completion date in the summer of 2023. They still must get their plans signed off by the historic preservation commission and city council, but White sees no hurdles

Besides, the hotel projects, Cripple Creek will sport a new restaurant, called the District, proposed by a Colorado Springs group, according to White. This will be located at the site formerly occupied by the 9494 retail shop. Plus, a new more upscale coffee shop is being proposed on Bennett Avenue by the same group.  “We are seeing a lot more than just gaming,” said White.

In addition, permits have been pulled for dozens of new housing units, sparked by the city’s new development incentive program. This is aimed at fostering more workforce housing.  The most notable project has been proposed by Century Casino Cripple Creek, which calls for a variety of new buildings. These structures would mostly consist of modular units. Altogether, the town could bustle with more than 100 new housing units, if a number of projects pan out. But for 2022, active work could occur on about 30 units, based on permit action. “We have had a very strong response to our development incentive program,” said White. This offers major perks, such as the possible waiving of tap fees, for a limited period.

Device Fee Hikes and the Arrival of Recreational Marijuana

The new year in Cripple Creek won’t feature any new elections. But it could feature a lively hot rod controversy over the subject of legalizing recreational marijuana, and opening the door for cannabis retail shops

The city has proposed an increase in fees imposed on betting devices and games for casino operators. These fees have not been upped in 30 years. A work session is scheduled on this issue later this winter.

Casino operators have greeted this idea with much skepticism, and instead, want to help the city consider other additional revenue sources, such as opening the door for recreational marijuana. This is a position advocated by the town’s casino association.

Reaction to this idea has been mixed by elected leaders and city officials, who cite concerns over the impacts associated with the marijuana industry. According to White, in order for retail  pot to become legal in Cripple Creek, two votes would have to occur. One would deal with whether citizens wanted to have recreational marijuana outlets on a limited scale, and the other would deal with okaying the associated taxes.

On a best-case scenario, White doesn’t see this occurring for several years, but the thrust of the debate on licensing recreational marijuana outlets  could take center stage in 2022.

A similar idea was mulled about five years ago, but was rejected by the city council. Since then, opinions have changed and more acceptance has developed regarding the cannabis industry. Proponents, including several key casino operators, cite the advantages of adding a younger demographic of customers, but critics worry about the social impacts and adding to the district’s substance abuse problems.

Despite the mixed opinions, city  and gaming leaders are on the same page regarding one central problem: the city needs more revenue to operated and to provide services.

Green Mountain Falls

Roads, Parking and Art Boom

2022 could become a pivotal  year for Green Mountain Falls.

The year will kick off with a new administration, courtesy of new Town Manager Becky Frank and Clerk/Treasurer Nathan Scott.  They both were appointed in late 2021, and both have strong local connections.  This could serve as an added asset, as previous out-of-town administrators often got greeted with much skepticism.

Then, in April, the town will have a  municipal election, with voters picking a new mayor and deciding several trustee positions. The outcome of this election will have big consequences, especially the pick for a new mayor.  Outgoing Mayor Jane Newberry is term-limited and can’t seek re-election. She has emerged as the main leader of the town for the last four years, and served as a big advocate of the town’s bid for  pursing a paid-parking system.

This issue will take on central focus again in 2022, with the contract continuing with Interstate Parking of Colorado.  But no issues can overcome the demand for road improvements. This has been the main outcry of local citizens. The town, though, has reaped the benefits of many grants, including one for developing a comprehensive road improvement plan, and another one for assisting the local chamber of commerce.

2022 also will mark the debut of the James Turrell Skyspace attraction, which could bring a new demographic to town and further bolster the town’s image as an artistic hub.

Lower Ute Pass

Tiny Home Verdict Looming

The coming year will serve as a D-Day for a proposed residential development that has turned into a local range war in the lower Ute Pass.

Most likely, El Paso County government officials will decide the verdict on plans for the Bonsai development, calling for several hundred tiny homes in the former “Field of Dreams” spot near the Ute Pass Elementary School.

The project has ignited wide spread opposition from local residents, who label the development as trailer park dump and contend the area doesn’t have the resources to support this many homes. At the same time, the region’s need for affordable housing and smaller home units has  gained some support among the El Paso County Commissioners.  Opponents, though, have some big legal hitters, who have vowed to take the issue to court if county planners give the okay. The entire Ute Pass Avenue landscape has been invaded by opposition signs.