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Meet the Mancos trustee candidates, part 3

In this year’s municipal election, five candidates are running for four open trustee positions on the Mancos town board. It is Mancos’s first contested election in several years, after five candidates were elected to five open seats in 2016. Two trustees whose terms are ending, Lorraine Becker and Michele Black, have chosen not to run again.

The candidates are: Steve Kennedy, 66, retired; Betsy Harrison, 76, retired; Brent McWhirter, 33, owner of the Moose and More ice cream shop in Cortez; Mayor Pro Tem Fred Brooks, 64, retired and running for his second term; and Trustee Cindy Simpson, 55, an occupational safety specialist for the Colorado Department of Transportation who is running for her second term.

The candidates answered the following questions in interviews and by email. Their answers have been edited for grammar, style and length where necessary.

In the wake of the Western Excelsior fire, what do you think the town board can do to help attract new businesses and jobs to the area?

Brooks: The town board has remained supportive of Western Excelsior both before and since the fire. While the fire was a very real tragedy for the town as a whole, the predictions of doom and gloom have not come true. Sales tax revenue is up again for 2017 and it seems that the fire did not hurt the town to the degree that everybody expected. We would truly like Western Excelsior to be to be a part of this community, but while they continue through their transition period, we need to continue looking for new businesses to locate here. With tax revenue up, and a wage savings realized by combining the town clerk/treasurer and administrator position, I would like to see us hire a part-time economic development specialist. This position could be only for the town, or to partner with other local organizations.

Harrison: It’s very difficult, and my experience is that it’s hard because the town is too small to sustain a lot of businesses. You need to be able to draw from a larger pool of people. I’m involved in a lot of conversation with the people who are running the Creative District, because that’s their main focus, is using the arts, particularly, toward the goal of economic development. And I think that’s critical. But people complain and say, “Why don’t we have a drug store? Why don’t we have a this and that?” And a drug store couldn’t survive here, because there’s just not enough people. Now there’s the broader valley, and unfortunately people just go to Cortez or Durango to shop, so that would be something to try and do, which the Chamber tried a few years ago, get people to think about doing their business in Mancos first, if there is a place to do their business.

Kennedy: In a town this size, a lot of the jobs people have are outside town, and it’s likely to remain that way. I don’t know whether the plan should be to have more business in town, but the plan has to be able to account for population increasing faster than the jobs available. We need to find a way to get growth without having to give anything away in terms of old-fashioned economic development. But we definitely have to have infrastructure in place for new businesses.

McWhirter: I think the town board’s role is making it as easy as possible for businesses to grow and prosper in the town. I know, when I was starting my business here in Cortez, there were a lot of hurdles that we had to jump through to get the business started, and just to get permits. Everything from signage, to getting a permit for sales tax, and just signing up for general utilities was sometimes a hassle. Just to get our sign approved, it took almost three weeks just to get the right form filled out. I don’t think it should be easier to buy a house than to start a business. Working with the trustees in the future, (my goal) would be to streamline that process and make it as easy as possible for businesses to grow and prosper in the town.

Simpson: This is a very interesting question–so far, we really haven’t seen any adverse financial impact to the town’s revenue due to the fire, so I’m not sure that we would necessarily change anything specifically for this reason. We have reached out to company officials and have helped within our scope of authority. It may surprise residents to know that we had 19 new businesses licensed in 2017. I feel for a town our size, we’re doing remarkably well. To improve on the Mancos business and residential experience, I would like to see fiber installation throughout town to ensure we’re ready for high-tech businesses and to improve the quality of life for our residents. We’ve already begun installing conduit for fiber in several areas of town when we’ve had projects that required digging for utilities, etc. We are also in the preliminary planning stage to run fiber to our water treatment plant–which will eventually allow internet service providers to offer high-speed internet throughout town.

How can the town board work with the rest of the county to move forward with currently stalled projects like Trails of the Ancients and affordable broadband?

Brooks: Trails of the Ancients deserves to be promoted more as a route for tourists to utilize as they travel through the Four Corners area. The designation of the route as a national scenic byway has given the route some publicity, but more is needed. When the Arizona and New Mexico portion of the trail achieve national scenic byway status, then the Trail of the Ancients will be designated an All-American Road. I think that the town board could help to promote the trail, as we do now with other local tourist destinations. The county is in a financial bind, and in addition funding for the repair of Highway 491 has been withdrawn for 2018. We all need to reach out to the state of Colorado for help. The broadband initiative for Montezuma County has indeed stalled. The Southwestern Colorado Council of Governments, which represents five counties in southwestern Colorado, has plans to apply for a grant with the FCC in the second quarter of this year. They are asking for more than $40 million, and if granted, this will allow them to partner with CDOT, Colorado Telehealth and the FCC rural health care initiative to place fiber in the ground along the Highway 160 corridor between Durango and Cortez. If granted, this funding request will be a good start, but we still need to seek an active public/private partnership locally to provide broadband within Montezuma County.

Harrison: I really don’t know about Trails of the Ancients. I feel very strongly that we need to get broadband here. It’s very hard, because as an outsider, you can say, “Well, why doesn’t the town do this?” And then, once you get into the details, you find out the town can’t do that legally. I just think they should be aggressive and proactive, and certainly, if there’s meetings going on, if we have the opportunity to have a representative there, to represent Mancos and to push on it, I would definitely do that. I’ve talked to the school, and I know that the kids had problems several years ago, because they had all these tests online, and they couldn’t take them because the online didn’t work. So they were still doing paper tests. Everything has progressed to digital, but you get these rural areas, and even at my house, and I’m in town, it’s just so slow.

Kennedy: Those projects are really critical to the town, especially Trails of the Ancients. In La Plata County, they installed similar trails, and it has really enlivened and enriched the county. It’s difficult because these are all private landowners. But there is a plan in place, and it’s a pretty good plan that is starting to take shape. It’s a matter of money and communicating with the landowners. As far as broadband, it should contain all of this zip code, but the town is barely half of that. That’s where collaboration has to come in. The town can help, but it can’t ramrod anything. We need to have representatives in all areas and take an active role in the process.

McWhirter: I think that the broadband one is a very important issue. Broadband is needed in rural communities especially. It’s one of the most underserved sections of the state, and finding reliable broadband in a rural area is sometimes very difficult. As a business owner, I can attest to that. We do have fiber here in Cortez for the businesses, which has been great, and I think that’s one way we can, as a board, prioritize that project for the economic impact that it can have in the town of Mancos. By offering broadband to businesses, that’s one way we can draw people to town in the future. By working with the county and working with all the different entities that are involved–one way the board can work better with all those entities is better communication and making sure that we’re sending representatives to planning and zoning board meetings, and sending trustees to county commissioners’ meetings as a way of bridging some of that gap, instead of only holding one or two workshops a year with them.

Simpson: By continuing to actively participate in the steering committees for these projects. Our responsibility is to our Mancos residents/landowners, so we support projects that will benefit our town population. We feel we have a good working relationship with Montezuma County and have several breakfast meetings a year to discuss mutual interest items. I won’t repeat my answer to question six, but in that answer I discuss what the board is doing to lay the groundwork for fiber while these larger projects are stalled. Local motion is happening.

Mancos has a small budget, and this year it is dipping into reserves for funding. What do you think the town should do to balance its budget and increase funds for projects like the Main Street bridge replacement?

Brooks: Each board has different ideas with regard to using reserves to fund the budget. Generally speaking, the best practice is to use reserves to match grant funding requirements or for capital projects only. Reserve funds should never be used to balance the operating budget unless a genuine emergency arises. The town of Mancos is not in the business to “make money,” so we should not have an extremely large unrestricted fund balance. Reserves should absolutely be used to fund capital projects. The town has adopted fiscal policies which guide our decisions with regards to fund balances, unrestricted reserves and restricted reserves.

Harrison: Generally, the way you do that is you get businesses here that are going to bring in sales tax. The other thing I don’t know about is permits–you know, that’s a way to raise money: charging for permits or water taps or things like that, where revenue goes to the town. But I need some more information. The only thing that comes to mind right off the top, without knowing the details of the business of the town, is to increase sales tax. Another thing is to make Mancos more attractive so that people want to live here. And I suppose that would increase property tax, and there’s part of the property taxes that come to the town.

Kennedy: We need to find a way to get more money to pay for things like the bridge. There’s grant money and collaborations with the state that we could look into. In Telluride, we collected about $250,000 in property tax, but we had a $20 million budget. Right now Mancos is almost completely dependent on property taxes for revenue. We need other revenues.

McWhirter: I know that they’re in the red this year because they have to replace the bridge, and that is important. Infrastructure’s very important in the town, and that bridge is very important because it’s one of the only lifelines to the people who live on the other side of that bridge to downtown. So it is very important that that bridge is replaced and that it’s a safe bridge for all forms of traffic to traverse. Something that I think they need to do more of is prioritize what projects are absolute, and what projects can be put on the back burner for the future to help save some money and balance the budget better. I know that they have some paving projects on the agenda for this year. I don’t know necessarily if those are needed at this point, where they could maybe cut some money out of the budget and try to balance things, but if they’re already on the books, they don’t really have a choice to do that. And I know that they do have a surplus right now in their budget, or at least in the reserves, so that they can cover it and still be in the plus this year. But in the future, prioritize projects on level of importance.

Simpson: We’ve made significant changes in our budgeting focus this past year and staff has presented a far more balanced budget than in recent years. Staff estimates are low on revenues and high on expenditures purposefully so we have a strong comfort level with the ultimate results. It’s important to understand that we don’t pay for normal operating expenses out of reserves unless there is an emergency situation during the year. We do use reserves to take advantage of grants that staff discovers–there is typically a “town match” amount that may come out of reserves. Our current staff is extremely good at obtaining grant money and putting a variety of funding sources together to achieve projects that benefit our residents, such as the paving project last summer on the north side of Highway 160. In addition to grant matches, reserves also exist so we can use them as needed for large capital projects. Mancos is financially healthy and as a resident and trustee, I’m very aware of expenses vs. revenue.

If you are elected, what is the first thing you hope to do as a town trustee?

Brooks: We truly need to stay the course financially as we have some infrastructure upgrades coming. I look forward to continuing to work as a team member for the future of Mancos.

Harrison: My first priority would be to learn the job and develop a good working relationship with whoever the other trustees happen to end up being. I think if we know our jobs and we work together, we can solve a lot of problems.

Kennedy: The very first thing I would do would be to set up a multi-faceted communication system between the town boards and citizens to find out what people want. I don’t think there’s ever been a real efficient way to reach out and ask “What’s important to you?” We need to come to a consensus on where we want to go as a town and form a plan based on what the people want.

McWhirter: I think the first thing I’d like to do is review what has been done in the past with the trustees that are already on the board, and what are some of the goals that we have. (I’d) maybe create a list of goals with the other trustees of stuff that we want to accomplish in our first year, our second year, and look toward the future.

Simpson: I strongly believe trustees should come to the board without specific “agendas”. We serve and represent our town residents to the best of our abilities, and should not push our own personal beliefs or seek some sort of gain from our positions. This past year, I proposed creating and funding a line item for the 2018 budget for public art so local artists can continue to beautify our town, and I would like to serve on the board this next term so I can see that concept come to fruition. I think ramping up code enforcement with an educational outreach first would be a great step to take, based on input I’ve received from several residents. The best thing we can do for our town is to continue to modernize our infrastructure, because without that stable base of operations, we won’t be able to attract suitable business and residential development.

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