Tuesday saw a changing of the guard at the Montezuma County Courthouse, as new commissioners Keenan Ertel and Larry Don Suckla took oaths of office. Departing are the term-limited Gerald Koppenhafer and Larrie Rule, who served on the commission since 2005.
The Cortez Journal sat down with Koppenhafer - a large-animal veterinarian by trade - to reflect on his eight-year tenure representing District 3, the southeast portion of Montezuma County. Rule did not respond to requests for an interview.
A primary focus of the commission, given the difficult economic times, has been keeping county finances in the black. How was that accomplished?
If you look at the county budget now versus 2005, the balance in almost every fund has gone up tremendously. The general fund had barely $1 million back then, and operational costs were month-to-month. The general fund is close to $10 million now. It's simply taking care of income and not squandering it just because you might have extra one year. At some point, the excess revenue won't be there anymore. We didn't increase personnel or programs in good years - we held steady. By doing that, we've increased reserves in all funds and put Montezuma County on solid footing. (Note: According to data from county treasurer Sherry Dyess, in Dec. 2004 the general fund stood at $3 million and dipped to $1.1 million a year later. At the end of 2012, the fund had grown to $9 million).
Access to public lands is a hot topic in the county, as evidenced by the contentious battle over the Boggy-Glade Travel Management Plan. What was it like arbitrating an issue like that?
Part of being commissioner is getting caught in the middle. You are representing the people of this county, and that includes groups with wildly different opinions. Some want road access to use their motorcycles and 4-wheelers and full-size trucks. Some want them closed. The pro-motorized contingent was the most vocal because they felt shut out. They are resistant to these changes the (U.S.) Forest Service is making. They feel it's the tip of the iceberg, as far as restrictions to using public lands.
The uproar over Boggy-Glade led to the creation of the Public Lands Coordination Commission. The commission lasted about two years before you and the other commissioners shut it down in October. Did it serve a useful purpose?
The idea of hearing more feedback was a good one. But the group couldn't move beyond the question of what "coordination" meant. We felt the conversation kept getting stuck at that point and preventing needed functions from being done. When the Forest Service reps come to meet with us, that is coordination. It doesn't mean they'll act the way we want. Instead of discussing the practical issues, (the PLCC) got bogged down deciding whether coordination was happening or not. It didn't seem like it would ever end.
What steps have been taken to make Montezuma County a more attractive place for business?
One thing we tried was changing zoning rules along highways. We established overlay zones, designating certain areas for commercial or industrial development. Some people say zoning is to restrict development. In my mind, it isn't to restrict. It's to put compatible development together. The final approval of overlay zones happened this past fall.
Coming from a private veterinarian practice, was it challenging to suddenly be dealing with the intricacies of county management?
I knew quite a bit about land use coming in. I was part of the group that developed the comprehensive land-use plan, which the current code came out of. It was a citizen-driven process.
How did you balance conflicting constituent requests?
Anytime a controversial issue comes up, people feel strongly. You need to take different viewpoints into consideration and decide what's best for the county as a whole, not this narrow group or that group. That's the toughest part for people to understand. If (the commission) rules against your view, it isn't because we're ignoring it. It's because we're looking out for the entire county.
What are a few notable accomplishments for the county during your two terms on the commission?
We've made improvements to the grandstand at the county fairgrounds, working with the rodeo committee. We've remodeled the courthouse. We purchased an old armory from the state of Colorado to house the road department and mosquito control equipment. We also purchased 40 acres by the landfill that had been under lease since the 1970s. We went back to a single road supervisor (Dean Roundtree) versus a committee of foremen that wasn't functioning well. And Montezuma County is in good financial shape.
Any regrets or unfinished business?
We didn't completely finish updating the courthouse security system or moving county and district court offices into one building It would be ideal to get all personnel in the same place. An architect is still working on the plans.
Would you have pursued a third term if it was permitted by law?
I don't think so. Eight years is long enough.
Going back to the vet practice (in Mancos) and running our cattle ranch.