Planning merger discussion continues

With local residents filling every seat in the Pagosa Springs Town Council chambers, and others spilling into the hallway for lack of space, council had ample input at a Tuesday work session concerning a proposed merger of town and county building and planning departments.

Addressing issues of proposed outsourcing of contract planners as well as council’s reluctance to move forward with a merger, citizens who addressed council were, almost unanimously, in favor of the merger.

“I don’t think the merger is pro- or anti-development,” said Natalie Carpenter. “I know it’s scary to do something new, but I don’t think there’s anything to fear with this merger.”

A 23-year resident of the area, Tim Horning echoed Carpenter’s sentiment, saying, “I don’t understand why the fear is there. I applaud the county in its work to promote growth. I’m in favor of the merger.”

“I think everyone here is in favor of it,” said David Cammack. “You’re moving in the right direction to combine and save money.”

Speaking to the issue of hiring contract planners, Pat Alley said, “I have built and developed in eight mountain communities. Last summer, I gave up on a project because of outsourcing,” adding, “it’s not a good idea.”

With residents’ input pushing the meeting well past an hour, Mayor Ross Aragon closed the proceedings to public comment and called on council for their views on the merger.

“The question I have in my mind,” said council member Don Volger, “is do we need to have a full merger in order to have unity? We need to figure out a way to come together and make it better for the community, break down those walls of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and come together as ‘we.’ We’ve got to figure out a way to grow together.”

Council member Darrel Cotton was not as amicable, saying, “Everyone knows I’ve opposed this from the beginning; I don’t think it’s good for the town. I’ve done some research and smaller bureaucracies are better than large ones, and what we’re talking about is creating a larger bureaucracy.”

Cotton also took issue with the notion that the town and county had not worked together in the past. “When has the town and county not worked together? We’ve always worked together. I rest my case. We have our differences. This one-stop process doesn’t work, the process is the same. I don’t believe there will be savings. We’re different. We can certainly work together for the same goals but, we’re different.”

Attempting to counter Cotton’s resistance, council member Mark Weiler said, “Number one, we’ve got new people in the game who weren’t here before, who have a proven record of success. Number two, neither the county nor the town’s building department fees will be enough to support either, so at the end of the day, the county and town are not projecting enough revenue to do that.”

Weiler asked Aragon to call on Archuleta County’s director of community development, Rick Bellis, primary architect of the merger, to clarify some of the points that appeared to trouble some members of council. After providing a laundry list of what the county would bring to the table, Bellis spelled out the realities of current economic conditions.

“Neither town nor county planning and building department fees will be enough to provide for either department,” said Bellis. “All I know is that the numbers don’t look good.”

Bellis went on to add that, by his estimates, the town would stand to save as much as $41,000 with the inception of the merger.

Council member Shari Pierce stated that she had some questions that had yet to be answered and that those questions, along with the lack of response, caused more than some concern regarding the proposal. Likewise, council member Stan Holt stated similar concerns, regarding no response to questions he had submitted about the proposal and for specific issues regarding what a merger would look like.

Bellis replied that he was unable to respond to queries he had not received, implying that Holt and Pierce had never forwarded their questions to him.

Holt and Pierce did seem amenable to a compromise merger that would encompass the three-mile perimeter of the Urban Services Area in which town and county overlap, a concession that Bellis implied would be acceptable to the county.

Volger asked Bellis, “What do you see as challenges and stumbling blocks to the process that could keep this from proceeding?”

Bellis responded that opponents of the merger would be vigilant, watching for the first problem that would arise, as well as issues with codes and ordinances, and probable turf disagreements. “Nothing that’s not insurmountable,” Bellis said.

“I’m more concerned about your (the town’s) department coming in on budget,” Bellis added. “I know our oil and gas permit revenues will be more than enough to pay our bills.”

Pierce asked, “Last spring, before I was on the board, a similar proposition was brought before council. What changed?”

“A change in leadership in the county,” Weiler responded. “The wisdom of duplicating services within 3,000 feet of each other escapes me. We need to show enough courage to change this.”

“If you’re going to call me a coward,” responded Cotton, “call me a coward. I hate this ‘show me the courage’ stuff.”

Weiler apologized to Cotton for the comment.

With some council members seemingly entrenched in their positions, those council members rarified their positions for elaboration. Meanwhile, others suggested that common ground could be found to make the merger work.

“I agree with Darrel and Stan’s idea of merging for the urban services area,” said Pierce.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of debate. We need to look for things to agree on. If we find a way to work together, all these people will benefit,” said Volger.

Cotton made his case clear, saying, “If the greater interest has a negative impact on our town, I’m not going to do it.”

For his part, Holt shared Cotton’s reticence, saying, “I share a lot of concern that the town’s interest will be diluted. (County Commissioner) Bob Moomaw said he’d like to merge governments; that’s the way this is heading. I’m very protective of the town’s interests. If we merge governments, with 12,000 people in the county and 1,700 in the town, guess who’s going to get the gravy?”

County and the town officials meet today at 10 a.m. in council chambers for another work session on the proposed merger. While it is apparent that the county will continue to pursue the merger with alacrity — and quite a few concessions — some members of council seem beholden to a very old saying, “timeo danaos et dona ferentes” — beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

jim@pagosasun.com