Gilpin residents hear from commissioner hopefuls

candidates_forumEvery resident will vote for both District 1 and District 3 candidates

by Patty Unruh

About 80 people turned out at the Gilpin Community Center last Saturday afternoon, October 1, for an election forum. The audience heard the qualifications and positions of the six candidates for the Board of County Commissioners. Top issues included transportation, medical services, whether or not to diversify apart from the gaming industry, and accessibility to county facilities and to the commissioners themselves.

Moderators were Aaron Storms, publisher and editor of the Weekly Register-Call, and John Scarffe, reporter covering government issues for The Mountain Ear. This was the first time the two local newspapers have joined to sponsor a political forum.

Scarffe introduced Gilpin County Clerk and Recorder Colleen Stewart, who said Gilpin voters should receive their ballots in the mail about October 19 or 20.

There are three voting options. First, there are three drop-off boxes, one in Rollinsville, one at the Gilpin Community Center, and one at the Gilpin County Courthouse. The boxes are open 24/7 until 7 p.m. on election night. Second, in-person voting at the courthouse becomes available on October 25 and continues through Election Day, November 8. Hours for the courthouse will be 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Finally, ballots may be mailed in for 89 cents’ postage.

  Each candidate had five minutes to introduce themselves and to present reasons why they should be elected.

Craig Holmes

Craig Holmes is the Republican candidate for District 1. Holmes, a 17-year resident of the county, has served on the Gilpin RE-1 School Board for nine years, seven and a half as president. He highlighted improvements in the school’s academic record and finances during his tenure.

He joined the Gilpin County Education Foundation 11 years ago and has served for ten years as its president. He is also president of the Elks’ Lodge Board of Directors and treasurer of Gilpin County Senior Living Board.

Holmes is zone manager for Corner Store (CST Brands) and oversees 500 employees.

He has an extensive background working with government agencies and has familiarized himself with the Board of Commissioners by attending eight of the past nine meetings.

He concluded, “I have a strong sense of servant leadership and a true passion for Gilpin County. I am a research-based individual and am always prepared.”

Ron Engels

Engels is the Democratic candidate for District 1. If elected, Engels will leave his position as mayor of Central City and his job with the Denver Public School District (DPS) that he has held for 22 years.

“My qualifications as a leader are integrity, honesty, insight, willingness to listen, and ability to motivate others.” He said he would advocate for all county residents and be a good steward of county resources.

Engels is working with Gilpin County Senior Living to help seniors continue to enjoy living here in affordable housing. He believes such housing should include assisted living and a medical clinic that could be used by the whole community.

He mentioned gaming as Gilpin County’s single revenue source for the past 25 years and said if residents want change, we need to chart a course forward.

Steve Boulter

Boulter is the District 1 Independent candidate. Boulter has lived in Gilpin County for 29 years. He has the oldest gaming license in Colorado and has been involved in the casino business since the inception of gaming in Gilpin County 25 years ago. He manages 45 employees in his small family business, the Dostal Alley Brewpub in Central City.

Boulter sits on six different boards serving Gilpin’s population from youth to seniors. These are Gilpin County School Board, Central City Business Improvement District, Main Street Commission, Central City Volunteer Firefighters, Board of Cooperative Educational Services, and Gilpin County Senior Living.

Addressing the needs of seniors, he believes in independent housing as a first phase, with the addition of assisted living.

“I intend to make this my full-time job. It’s time for me to serve the county in a different manner.”

Gail Watson

Watson, Democrat, is the current county commissioner from District 3. She is the only sitting commissioner running for reelection.

Watson came from the private sector before being elected as a commissioner. She came to realize that, in contrast to the fast pace of private business, government moves slowly. She has come to respect the slower process.

“We look at all the consequences to make sure we are doing things right.” She cited recent work with the U.S. Forest Service in looking for a place for a shooting range in Gilpin County and seeking to improve broadband service for Gilpin residents.

“We are always looking for grant funding. We were tasked with a $20.1 million budget. Gaming tax revenue is going to be $10.5 million. The budget is rising to pre-recession levels. This will allow us to work on deferred maintenance, such as the $1.1 million roof needed by the Justice Center.”

Rebecca Shirey

Shirey is the District 3 Republican candidate. She was originally drawn to Gilpin in 1973, revisited the area several times through the 70’s and 80’s, and in 1990 bought her home here.

Shirey named a number of changes that have occurred since then – the gaming industry, marijuana grow houses, national parks infiltrated by visitors, fire concerns, and the lack of a medical facility. An important issue to her is protection of Gilpin’s environment.

“Let’s keep it the way it is now and allow for future growth. The county has more than doubled in size since I moved here, and we can’t stop it. We need to plan and prepare and have places for residents to live, good schools, and places for recreation.”

Shirey has an extensive background in business, running large companies and starting her own insurance agency ten years ago. She also has experience in the gaming industry and is president-elect of the Rotary Club.

“I was in the top five percent of the country as a controller for dealerships all over the country. I can continue to provide services through these different aspects of my experience,” she said.

Doug Lupo

Lupo is the Independent candidate for District 3. He has been the team leader at Gilpin’s Transfer Station for three months and has worked for the county for two years. He is a former military veteran, has 13 years’ experience in executive management, has traveled all over the world, and lived in small towns and major cities, including Washington, DC.

Lupo says of all the places he has lived, he wants to be here in Gilpin. He believes that the best way to succeed as commissioner is to do as he would do in business – listen to people and investigate what they are saying.

He and his wife moved to Gilpin to get away from the city. He wants Gilpin to progress in a way that doesn’t change what it is but improves it.

As overseer of the Transfer Station, he said, “I have a different perspective. I see the county from the trenches.”

Community Concerns

Members of the public were invited to submit their questions to the candidates. Over 50 questions were submitted, with the top three being selected and asked of each candidate.

  1. What needs changing in Gilpin County and what does not?

All candidates agreed that our small town rural mountain life and sense of community should be protected, because that is why we’re here. What does need changing?

Lupo: Community facilities need to be more readily available. Seniors need transportation to go to medical appointments. An opening at the Transfer Station was advertised for three months with no response; after 30 days, another avenue should have been tried.

Shirey: The Community Center should have more facilities available, not only for children and seniors, but for those in-between. There is no medical facility between Gilpin County and Clear Creek. Nederland has a medical facility; why can’t we have one? If we coordinate with a senior living facility, we can provide for both the seniors and the community in general.

Watson: We had a clinic for 28 years, but it left two years ago because not enough people used it, so we couldn’t sustain a doctor or a nurse practitioner. If we want medical care, we have to use it. A few providers have contacted us who are interested in developing a medical facility. There is a meeting about this on October 7 at 10 a.m. on the second floor of the Central City Courthouse.

Boulter: We must reinstitute our transportation system and serve the southern portion of the county, giving greater access to the county campus (Community Center, Justice Center, Gilpin Library) and to banking and grocery facilities. Let’s step into the current century by providing better wireless Internet. Our community is supported by the casino industry, keeping our taxes low, so we should manage with the opportunities we have with gaming.

Engels: Are we okay with gaming as our single source of revenue? If so, let’s plan accordingly; if not, let’s diversify to open up multiple revenue streams. This would include a robust long-term capital improvement plan.

Holmes: We must diversify our economy and use our synergies for long-term success. The Eaglesmart convenience store that just opened to train students is a great example of a creative effort between Gilpin County Education Foundation, the school district, and the City of Black Hawk. After expenses, the money goes to provide scholarships. That’s entrepreneurial thinking.

  1. There may be another slump in the economy. How can we lower costs without lowering the quality of residents’ services?

Boulter: As a rural community, our value comes from our large tracts of land and open space. “We are dependent on one industry, but it’s an industry that many other counties and cities would sell their children to have.” We need to maintain the value of that industry at the same time that we maintain the value of our community and homes individually. We have low taxes, but a large portion of our value comes from property tax.

Engels: The economy is cyclical and will downturn. We must plan for that by creating a capital improvement plan, a five-year plan, ten-year plan, etc. We’re dependent on the casino industry. But Central City has a rich history, and we want to use that to become a heritage tourist destination. If we diversify and create new jobs for those who live here, those jobs don’t necessarily benefit the county. How can we leverage diversification to benefit the county?

Holmes: Economic diversification has to happen. You can create 45-50 jobs and benefit the community. The county should work with the cities of Black Hawk and Central City and other municipalities to accentuate what is great about us. Tourists come up and stay for a night or two. How can we get this to where they will stay for a week and have a greater impact on our economy?

Lupo: The economy fluctuates and always will. We rely on gaming, but we should not put ourselves in a position where we rely on what is not stable. There would be opportunities to create jobs at the Community Center by opening it early and keeping it open late. Black Hawk has been thinking ahead about how to bring families here for activities besides gambling. We can use local resources and create opportunities. If we rely only on gambling, we fail.

Shirey: Inflation affects everyone. Gaming is a stable industry; in fact, October 1 was the 25th anniversary of gaming in Gilpin County. It’s here to stay and provides us with lots of benefits. We have the advantage of income without having to deal with the people who come to the casinos. The Gregory Street project is an effort to take advantage of tourist trade. Central City is trying to diversify with bed and breakfasts, marijuana houses – “These things are happening whether we want them to or not.”

Watson: The current board is always looking to the future. We have funds earmarked for the new roof on the Justice Center. We have sent a grant application to the Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission. We have $6 million in an emergency fund. Eventually we will have a disaster and are working to be prepared for this or for economic downturn. We have a mature industry in gaming, but when there is a recession, government gets downsized. We can look for partnerships with other counties as a way to save money.

  1. How should the county commissioners interface with state and federal governments and with county employees?

Shirey: She admitted some difficulty with this question, as she has no prior experience in government, but suggested that the different governments can work together. Evergreen and Clear Creek County are similar to Gilpin, and we can assist one another. Commissioners could gather and process needed information from various organizations in our county.

Watson: The federal government is hard to get ahold of, but Colorado has a great state government. Commissioners must be active. She attends meetings of the Colorado Emergency Management Association and the Colorado Counties, Inc. advocacy program and talks to experienced commissioners. “It’s how I came up with the idea for the county to partially fund health insurance. Through a grant, we have amassed $4 million in savings that didn’t go to the insurance company. It’s only in the second year but has paid dividends, and the rate for last year was lower than it would have been.” She also went to Rural Philanthropy Days for funding opportunities.

Holmes: It’s a commissioner’s job to network and a statutory responsibility to be on certain committees. Gilpin has been looked at as a pioneer among Colorado schools. Other districts have come to Gilpin to find out how our county made an intergovernmental agreement with Black Hawk to open the convenience store. Woodland Park sought Gilpin’s guidance for its school district regarding taxes. County agencies can look for ways to save together; when a company comes into Gilpin to perform a service for one group, other agencies could engage that service at the same time. However, the county agencies don’t always work among themselves well. “There are huge synergies locally, but the school board and commissioners have only met together twice.”

Engels: As mayor of Central City, Engels has worked with other government agencies. He worked for Senator Michael Bennet when Bennet was superintendent of Denver Public Schools and has also worked with U.S. Representative Jared Polis. As for a commissioner relating to other county employees, “we have an interesting reporting structure, with some hired employees and some elected officials who manage their own departments. I can bridge across these teams to help them work effectively together.”

Lupo: A county commissioner is the voice of the people and needs to talk with them and see what they do. “Ride with the county employee doing the snowplowing.” In two years of working for the Transfer Station, he has never had a commissioner come to talk with him. Also, there are a large number of veterans here. “The county has never donated anything to the VFW or American Legion. We must also take care of our seniors. We have what we have because of veterans and seniors.”

Boulter: He has heard many people complain that they don’t meet their commissioners. This job requires getting out and meeting people. When sitting on the commissioner board, work hand in hand with citizens and private entities. Each person has a voice and concerns.

Putting the Others on the Spot

Candidates drew names and asked their own question of one other candidate.

Holmes asked Watson: What is the biggest challenge for the county in 2017?

  Watson: 2017 will be a great year. Revenue has started rising to pre-recession levels, and we can start doing things we have wanted. The challenge is to figure out how to be as fiscally responsible as possible.

Engels asked Shirey: How would you interact with the rest of the people on the team, and what is more important to you – creativity or productivity?

  Shirey: “Creativity is more important. I’ve run a vast number of businesses, and the person who comes in and wants to collect a check is not nearly as helpful as the person who comes up with ideas.” She would bring her experience with very large retail businesses and marketing. She started her own insurance agency and has run it successfully for ten years. In order to be a full-time commissioner, she can run the agency on an absentee basis with her current employees, sell the agency, or turn it back to the company.

Boulter asked Lupo: What would you do in Gilpin to help the veterans more, within the confines of a responsible budget?

  Lupo: Lupo first thanked Boulter for providing a meeting place for the VFW and American Legion and acknowledged the beautiful memorial at the Community Center. The vets are still trying to find their own space, and Lupo feels a responsibility to help by providing a place for vets to connect.

Watson asked Engels: Northern Gilpin residents have a much higher tax burden than other Gilpin residents. What would you do to change this?

  Engels: There is a disparity between taxes in the south and the north. The north part is in the Boulder Valley School District, which has a much higher mill levy. That is not really within the control of the commissioners. Perhaps the school board president of Gilpin RE-1 could meet with the president of Boulder Valley and figure something out. Engels joked, “Or, RE-1 could raise taxes and make it more even. I am not advocating for it, but then everybody would be in the same boat!”

Shirey asked Holmes: How would you work the first year within the budget that is being produced now?

  Holmes: He has been invited to attend the commissioners’ budget meetings in a couple of weeks. When he examines any budget, he goes line by line and looks for opportunities to save. “The Gilpin school budget is $11 million. $575 million is the budget I oversee at work. I’m very in tune with budgeting and plan to participate in Gilpin County’s budget process whether or not I’m elected. And I don’t plan to raise taxes!”

Lupo asked Boulter: What could you do to make the county facilities, like the Community Center and Library, more available?

  Boulter: Our Community Center is a gem, and it’s time to expand the services at the center and the transportation services to get to it. It comes down to the budget. Casino employees and Gilpin citizens need increased hours and access to the county facilities. “I want to do it without raising taxes, but it takes more money and every department working together.”

Audience Participation

Members of the audience rose to ask direct questions, and each candidate responded.

  1. What about wasteful spending, such as on the bike path [on Highway 119]?

Boulter: The perception of wasteful spending can be cured with communication. Bike paths, such as we see in Clear Creek County or a portion of Black Hawk, are mandated by the federal government due to federal funding. This is a relatively new procedure – any time federal funds are spent on a portion of road and bridge, bicyclists must be accommodated.

  Engels: There is a mythology of wasteful spending, particularly at the county level. We don’t have a lot of discretionary spending. Transparency, communication, and a high level of integrity are the easiest way to dispel this myth.

Holmes: Federal mandates don’t always make sense, and in order to accept funds, you have to do some things. One thing we can change is accessibility to the commissioners. Many people commute during the day and can’t attend commissioners’ meetings. We could have more evening meetings.

Watson: No county money has gone into creating that bike path. Jeffco has paid $1 million per mile for it. We all have special interests. Some people want money for the ball fields, the library, the arts, seniors, or vets. It’s our responsibility, with input from you, to cover all interests. We had Coffee with the Commissioners meetings the third Thursday of every month at the Community Center and didn’t see most of you here, but it’s hard to get information out in the county. The meetings have been on hiatus this summer but will start again this fall.

Shirey: Community accessibility would help people understand the commissioners’ actions. She’s seen information on some Gilpin organizations’ Facebook pages, the CSU Extension’s monthly email to subscribers, and at the library.

Lupo: It’s the residents’ decision as a whole, and the commissioners’ obligation to find out what you want and do what they can.

  1. This question was for Craig Holmes: Do you consider the commissioner’s job to be full time, and how would you balance it with your current commitments?

Holmes: “Yes, it is a full-time job. I never did anything that I didn’t apply full-time effort to. My company was sold three weeks ago to a Canada company, Circle K. I got left out when the two companies merged, so I am interviewing for my next job [as commissioner]! I am not going to tell the other boards I am leaving, but if I win, that’s obviously a different conversation.”

  1. Another question for Holmes: Are you concerned that staying on the school board as an elected county official would be potentially ethically problematic?

Holmes: “If I’m elected, I need to make a decision whether to serve on the school board, but maybe not as president. The school is on an academic roll, and I’m part of the group that hired the right people. I would like to see our capital improvements through. One of my opponents has a long history in the gaming industry. Is that a conflict? I’m not saying it would be, but it’s comparable. Another opponent is an employee of the county. I’m committed to doing the best job for the county that I have done for RE-1.”

Closing Speeches

Watson highlighted her efforts the past four years on a balanced budget, medical services, the Gilpin Connect ride service, Gilpin County Senior Living, and this past summer’s “Ride Safe Ride Quiet” campaign aimed at visiting motorcyclists rather than county riders. Keeping Gilpin rural is her number one priority. “Your current board works very hard and takes your concerns seriously.”

Shirey said all the candidates were qualified but expressed frustration at trying to get ahold of commissioners and getting only voice mail. She would keep office hours and said, “You’d know how to reach me and where I am.”

Lupo held up a copy of the county’s 2016 budget and said it was available for everyone to see on-line. He urged keeping our money here in the community and said the Gilpin Connect was a great idea. “I saw Gail Watson driving it the other day! We have vehicles but no drivers. This needs to be addressed.” He suggested doing a monthly mailing to ask for residents’ input.

Holmes concluded, “Nobody is going to outwork me. I come from a performance-based environment. I’ll give all my passion and effort and do all I can to be responsible to the taxpayers and citizens of Gilpin County.”

Engels recalled, “Today is the 25th anniversary of introducing gaming into Gilpin, and it’s been good to us. If I’m elected, I will step aside as Central City mayor, so I’ve been training someone to take my place. I can step away from my jobs. We don’t need town hall forums; we are not New England and don’t have to get together to make every decision. You elected us and expect us to do the job we are elected for. I guarantee I’ll do that job if I’m elected.”

Boulter challenged Holmes on the notion that Holmes would work harder than anyone else. “I come from a performance-based environment also. If I don’t perform, I lose my job and my business, and so does everyone in my family. There is no more incentive than that.” He then asked the audience a question: “Why are you here? Why did you choose to live in Gilpin County, with its cold winters, lack of medical facility, and distance from shopping? It’s because this is a special place, and you are special, and I’d like to think I’m special. Working and living here for the past 30 years, I want to keep it special.”

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