Public lobs tough questions to county commissioner candidates

Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 6:09 PM
About 160 people showed up for a public forum with four candidates running for one seat on the Montezuma County Board of Commissioners in the November election.
Jim Skvorc asks candidates for the Montezuma County Board of Commissioners about the cost to taxpayers of fighting to assert claim jurisdiction of roads and trails on the San Juan National Forest.

The public got ample time during a forum Thursday in Dolores to ask four candidates running for a seat on the Montezuma County commission about their views on a variety of issues.

The format was designed for audience participation after brief introductions by candidates Republican Jim Candelaria, unaffiliated Steve Chappell, Democrat MB McAfee and unaffiliated Jessie James Sattley. About 160 people attended the event.

“There has not been this much interest in a commissioners race for quite some time, and I think it is a testament to the quality of candidates,” said moderator Kelly Turner of KRTZ radio, who organized the event along with the Four Corners Free Press.

Following are some highlights from the forum:

RS2477: whose road is it anyway?This topic generated some lively debate after two audience members expressed skepticism about a recent commissioner resolution claiming historical right of way on dozens of routes on San Juan National Forest land.

“San Juan County, Utah, spent $1 million (to claim federal roads). How much are you willing to spend?” asked Jim Skvorc. And how could you afford to maintain them if you did gain control? added Alan Kline.

Sattley, Candelaria and Chappell supported the RS2477 resolution asserting local jurisdiction of federal routes, and McAfee does not.

All candidates stated they would not be willing to spend that much money in the fight for historical roads access and use.

Candelaria sees the resolution as a “delineation of a right of way for a historic path, road or trail. It means we have a right to use that path and that it can’t be closed by the Forest Service. We need to stand up for our rights.”

McAfee has been critical of the resolution, saying it’s not legally defensible and that the county “can’t afford” a court battle in which it would be liable for legal costs.

Chappell said the routes were originally the county’s and were on maps before the forest existed, giving the county jurisdictional status. He said he has faith in the county attorney to advise the commission on the best way forward that will not be a burden on taxpayers.

Does the county need a sales tax?A shrinking budget because of declining tax revenue from oil and gas production is a looming problem for the county and the current level of services it provides.

One proposal is to ask voters for a 1 percent county sales tax to offset declining tax revenue. The county does not have a sales tax, and a ballot question needs commissioners’ approval. It was considered for the November ballot, but was dropped.

Chappell, Candelaria and McAfee support the sales tax idea in the future; Sattley does not.

“I’m not for the tax. We need to do with what we have now and tighten the belt until things get better,” Sattley said.

Chappell said he would support a 1 percent sales tax because it is more fair than hitting up property owners. “A sales tax is low-impact because it is shared by county and city residents and tourists,” he said.

Candelaria also is in favor of the sales tax because it is “equitable and will help move the county forward.” He said the additional tax revenue, which would also apply to marijuana retail sales in Cortez, could go toward supporting understaffed law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office, which has been burdened with increased drug crimes.

McAfee said that even though the sales tax idea was dropped, it is not a dead issue. She supports a sales tax, and if elected would survey resident on what they wanted the money to be spent on if it passed.

“If we are going to consider something as serious as a sales tax, we need to start planning now and involve the public,” she said.

Three candidates felt the commission was fiscally responsible, noting a healthy reserve and recent cutbacks. Sattley was less sure and felt the county was spending too much on road maintenance and equipment.

Larry Berger wondered whether Chappell’s earlier comment that the county majority was conservative meant that liberals did not have a voice.

“If we have a good idea, will you champion it?” he asked.

Chappell said he did not mean to be divisive with the statement and that it was in response to claims that he was a “vote splitter” by entering the race as unaffiliated. “I’m open to all ideas,” Chappell said, “but would make decisions based on my core conservative values.”

Plans for economic growth“How will you attract new businesses to the county?” a woman asked.

Candelaria said he supports the proposed Paths to Mesa Verde, a 17-mile trail from Cortez to Mancos, and would benefit the economy by attracting recreation tourism. Taking advantage of the county’s public lands to market multiple-use outdoor recreation “like Moab has done” should be pursued, he said.

McAfee said she believes investment in broadband internet is one way to attract businesses to the area.

“Businesses are reluctant to come here if there is not reliable broadband with redundancies built in so if a line is cut, their business does not go down,” she said.

Sattley said he would work to attract larger companies to the area, and he has floated the idea of bringing in a railroad spur to the Four Corners area to attract industry, provide shipping and boost commerce.

Chappell said that the county currently is business-friendly and that keeping point of entry costs low for new businesses is critical.

He said he will support the county ban on retail pot sales and feels marijuana stores in Cortez are not helping to attract new businesses.

“Some families and businesses turn away when they see all the marijuana stores,” he said. “I’d work with City Council to see if we could get that under control.”

Mary Dufer asked the candidates’ positions on a movement to transfer federal public lands to the states. Chappell said he favors state control over federal control, and Candelaria said county governments should have more control because they better understand local needs on public lands.

McAfee is against state takeover of federal lands and said the system of the public lands owned by all Americans is “classic, and has stood the test of time. We are lucky that one-third of our county is made up of Forest Service, BLM, a monument and a national park, and I have no faith that local or state could manage and control those lands,” she said to the largest applause of the night.

Sattley said he would work with federal land managers to negotiate more local control of public lands, but if “we fight the Feds, I think we will lose.”

Chappell has a hunting guide business, and Candelaria has a construction business. One question was whether they would have time to be an effective commissioner, noting the job pays $58,000 per year. Candelaria said he has staff to run his business,and would work full-time as a commissioner. Chappell also said he would make the commissioner job a priority, and he deflected concerns that he was too busy, saying being able to “multitask is the mark of a successful, productive man.”

Sattley also committed to working full-time if elected, and looked forward to “putting down his shovel” for a while. McAfee as well said she views the job as full-time, and if elected would set up office hours at different locations in the county.