A week after Robert Rowland and Larry Ross declined to participate in an open “Meet the Candidates” forum, the two Republican prospects for Elbert County commissioner agreed to meet with Colorado Community Media and discuss some of the pressing issues facing the county this year.
Transparency of local government, a debt-riddled budget and the potential for oil and gas development topped the list for both candidates.
Seeking the District 1 seat, Rowland, founder of the Elbert County Tea Party, touts more than 28 years' experience in several managerial positions at the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Newspaper Agency, including production, transportation and human resources.
Rowland plans to bring practical “business sense” back to county government.
The self-described community activist said the word “transparency” can't be used enough when it comes to local politics.
“Elbert County has a reputation of having a `good ol' boy' network with traditional closed-door meetings, and not respecting sunshine laws, and we've butted heads over that several times,” Rowland said.
Rowland says he's already raised the transparency flag more than once, by digging into the county's business regarding how it secured a 40-year, $7 million loan.
“When the county took out that loan, they did it with what we call a Certificate of Participation” he said. “And while that was done legally, it was nothing more than a loophole to get around TABOR.”
Fourth-generation rancher Larry Ross is a Cherry Creek High School graduate and is seeking the District 3 seat. He attended Colorado State University and spent more than 30 years in the real estate and facilities management industry.
Also an advocate for transparency, Ross said one of the first things he'll do as commissioner is to make himself available to the public.
“It's literally taking the door off my office, making my schedule public,” he said. “I've made a simple promise that I'll listen and have regular meetings on Saturdays and I'll sit down with a notepad and identify priorities and issues the citizens find important.”
As for budget issues, Rowland says he will continue his push for better fiscal accountability, and he feels exceptionally qualified to do just that.
“I'm comfortable in saying there is nobody, except Commissioner Kurt Schlegel, that understands the county budget better me, and where we are and what challenges we face going into next year; I've done my homework,” he said.
A spreadsheet Rowland put together and published suggests that if business as usual continues, the county will be out of money by the end of the year with about $133,000 left in the budget.
“That represents less than two hours of operating funds, and we only have $20,000 in our contingency fund; we're supposed to have $3.1 million, and with tax revenues not coming in until March, Elbert County will barely make January and February payroll,” he said.
“I've been in a lot of budget meetings and it's safe to say that its difficult times for all counties in Colorado,” said Ross, “but Elbert County, in particular, has some serious challenges to balance the budget going forward, but I believe it's doable, but it's something that's got to be addressed immediately.”
Ross says his global experience in the facility management industry makes him well suited to deal with these types of fiscal issues, as well as to woo bigger businesses to move to the area.
“As for improving our budget, we're almost entirely funded by property tax revenue, and as you can see there's very little commercial development, here,” he said. “I'd like to actively recruit companies to consider Elbert County — like a semiconductor design facility, something that's clean, that provides jobs and draws commerce into the county.”
But when it comes to oil and gas issues, both contenders agree, the potential for major exploration within the county will bring significant change, requiring balance.
“I don't hesitate to say this (oil and gas exploration) will be the single biggest change in the county's history,” said Ross. “But it's got its up-side and its down-side.”
“I'm a free-market capitalist in the first order,” Rowland explained. “I'm for gas; I'm for oil; I'm for water. None of those are mutually exclusive, and we will potentially have a windfall from them, but what we are going to have, more than just an influx of cash, is an opportunity to improve our infrastructure and our business base.”
However, both candidates issued strong warnings not to depend on oil and gas revenue as a cure-all for the county's financial ills.
“I don't believe in counting money that's not in the bank,” cautioned Ross.
Rowland pointed out that the county won't even know if the Niobrara shale formation is conducive to kinds of exploration and fracking needed to extract gas and minerals until seismic testing is completed early next year.
“If it isn't, they may walk away or go around it,” he said.
Rowland said budget issues need to be resolved without anticipating oil and gas revenue.
“We have to respond to our current situation,” he said. “We have a window of opportunity to turn this county around and save us from going off the economic cliff. I am confident that I have the skill sets to get us out of this mess, but I don't think we're gonna have too many more chances.”