OURAY COUNTY – Ouray County Road and Bridge Supervisor Chris Miller has received numerous complaints over the past week regarding a so-called “agent of a special operation,” operating out of the Bureau of Land Management office in Cortez, who has been “running around the hills of Corkscrew Pass giving tour vehicles tickets for not having BLM permits.”
Miller briefed the Ouray Board of County Commissioners on the situation at its meeting on Tuesday, July 23.
County officials were mystified as to why the Bureau of Land Management would have authorized such an operation, since the public land on the Ouray County side of Red Mountain Pass is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service, not the BLM.
“There seems to be some confusion from the federal agencies about where the jurisdictions lie,” said County Commissioner Lynn Padgett.
Padgett spent hours on the phone trying to get to the bottom of the matter, and reported to her fellow commissioners at a work session on Wednesday morning that the root of the problem appears to lie with an officer “on detail” with the BLM office in Cortez, who does not typically work in this region.
“They brought him over to help, and he is obviously confused about where the boundary is,” Padgett said.
Making matters worse, local Forest Service and BLM officials who would normally smooth over such problems are currently out of the office this week.
It turns out that the Forest Service and BLM have different rules regarding what sorts of permits need to be carried by commercial tour operators. “If you are on the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service land, you do not have to have a copy of your permit at all times, but if you are on the Department of Interior’s BLM land, you do,” Padgett explained.
The Forest Service has contacted the BLM and told them to stop issuing tickets on the Ouray County side, but Padgett worried that lasting damage had already been done to the tour operators’ reputations. “They blew it; they didn’t have any manners,” she vented about the BLM agent who had issued the tickets. “The worst of it is, [the passengers] will think that these were rogue drivers, operating without the right permit.”
Commissioner Mike Fedel speculated that the problem was “related to overreaching of the Federal Government.”
“I’m not going to disagree with you this morning, Mike,” Padgett said.
DISCUSSION OF DRAFT BALLOT LANGUAGE
Deep into their regular meeting on Tuesday afternoon, the Ouray Board of County Commissioners reviewed draft ballot language for a question that will likely appear on the county’s ballot this November, asking county voters to approve a one percent increase in the county sales tax to pay for emergency and public health services provided by the county.
The tax, proposed by county elected officials including County Clerk Michelle Nauer, Assessor Susie Mayfield, Treasurer Jeanne Casolari and Sheriff Junior Mattivi, would generate an estimated half-million dollars annually to offset a steep decline in property tax revenues which the county has suffered in recent years stemming from a downward trend in assessed property values.
Commissioners held some spirited debate about the merits of asking the county’s electorate for a permanent sales tax increase, as proposed, versus a temporary mil levy override (favored by Fedel), while Padgett suggested some language tweaks to the proposed ballot language making the question easier to understand.
Padgett said she wants to emphasize that the intent behind the question is “to be able to provide certainty of funding for emergency response with a dedicated revenue stream,” and wants “to help the public understand the sausage-making process” that has gone into the creation of the proposed ballot question.
Meanwhile, Fedel wondered, “Did we give up on our mil levy over a sales tax increase?”
Nauer reminded Fedel that the theory behind asking for a sales tax hike was to let tourists in Ouray County help pay for the services they use. Moreover, she explained, “We collectively thought that a sales tax would likely be an easier, better sell,” than a complicated mil levy increase or override.
Fedel pointed out that sales tax is the primary funding source for the county’s municipalities, and asserted his opinion that a permanent tax increase of any sort “will be very hard to justify.” He proposed that a mil levy override for a specific purpose, with sunset language, “would be much more desirable,” and pointed to the Ouray School District’s successful passage of such a question several years ago.
“If you impose permanents on this, I don’t think that’s the right avenue to follow,” he said. “We have seen this as a temporary problem.”
Padgett pointed out that due to Colorado’s Gallagher Amendment, “a mil levy has four times more impact on smart struggling small businesses” than on homeowners.
She reasserted her preference for a use tax, as the proper means of redressing the county’s budgetary woes, but supported the proposed ballot question that Nauer and her fellow elected officials proposed. “We should allow them to move forward with the proposal,” she said. “Do we need to go back to square one and dissect sales tax and use tax?”
“I’m one of three. Here I stand,” Fedel replied.
Batchelder, meanwhile, weighed in with his “personal opinion” that “there are two schools of thought – one extreme is that the county should operate on smallest amount of money it can possibly operate on, and the other is that county should operate to cover specific obligations and covering expenses in the future” but added that he “couldn’t say which argument would win at the polls.”
“It is incumbent upon the commissioners to say, ‘We have an issue and a proposed solution. What do the citizens want to do?’” he maintained.
In the end, the commissioners authorized Nauer to tweak the language in the way that Padgett had requested, and to come back with it again at the next commissioners meeting.
More of this type of debate is sure to follow; the commissioners have the whole month of August to hash out the ballot question’s language.
FIRE RESTRICTIONS LIFTED
Sheriff Dominic “Junior” Mattivi informed the Ouray Board of County Commissioners that the fire restrictions were lifted in Ouray County and many surrounding counties (including Delta, Gunnison, Montrose, San Juan and Hinsdale) as well as on federal lands in the region, as of 1 p.m. on Tuesday, July 23. “The monsoons are here,” Mattivi said. “Fire restrictions have been pulled on Grand Mesa and Uncompahgre National Forests. It only makes sense that we pull them too. We have gotten through the worst of summer and I don’t see any problem from this point on.”
Padgett questioned whether the Forest Service and BLM experts who recommended that the ban be lifted had considered the conditions on Log Hill Mesa, where some residents are concerned that it is still too dry for the fire ban to be lifted. “Ditches that have run for decades did not run this year,” she observed.
Lifting a ban on open fires would be “playing with fire, so to speak,” she said, by potentially introducing needless sparks into tinder-dry areas.
Mattivi maintained that “the experts that have studied it” and that conditions warrant that the ban should be lifted. He added that the Forest Service and BLM had been putting pressure on Ouray County to join in the regional action to lift the ban for the past two weeks, and that the fire chief “up there [on Log Hill] is on board with this.”
125TH ANNIVERSARY OF OURAY COUNTY COURTHOUSE
Ouray County Clerk Michelle Nauer briefed the Ouray County Commissioners on preparations that are taking place to celebrate the quasquicentennial (i.e. 125th “birthday”) of the Ouray County Courthouse, coming up on Aug. 22. Members of the Ouray Masonic Lodge will conduct a cornerstone plaque ceremony, and there will be speakers relating the colorful history of the building.
“It is our courthouse,” Nauer said. “It is for the community. There is lots and lots of history here; this cool building has a lot going for it.” A flyer outlining details of the event will be sent to local dignitaries, including former commissioners, state legislators and members of the state and local historical societies. Nauer said her goal is to come up with $10,000 to kick-start some needed renovation projects at the building.
COMMISSIONERS WORKSHOP PROPOSED LUC CHANGES
With a long-anticipated and potentially contentious public hearing on proposed changes to the Ouray County’s Visual Impact Regulations just around the corner on Aug. 7 and 8, the Ouray Board of County Commissioners and land use staff spent Wednesday morning, July 24, combing through less contentious aspects of the county’s Land Use Code, looking for places where the language is vague, confusing or redundant. It’s a project they’ve been chipping away at for the past several months. Proposed changes will be handed over to the Ouray County Planning Commission for further input in the near future.
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