A city-county tug of war
By Gail Binkly
Montezuma County was created in 1889. The city of Cortez was incorporated as a town in 1902. And probably ever since that time, the two entities have struggled to get along.
Theirs is an uneasy relationship, one that has had numerous ups, downs, twists and turns. At present, the members of city and county government are on fairly good terms. But differences in style, priorities and viewpoints can at any time change amicability to hostility – a fact of which officials are well aware.
“It’s always a tenuous relationship,” said County Administrator Tom Weaver. “There’s always some issue floating out there that has a tendency to derail the relationship if people aren’t willing to talk."
Rec center latest sore point with county voters
By Gail Binkly
Just as the governments of Cortez and Montezuma County have had a rocky relationship over the years, city and rural residents have had their share of ups and downs.
Questions about land-use regulations have long dominated arguments between the different populaces, with county-dwellers reluctant to adopt zoning or building codes and resentful of efforts by groups such as the Board of Realtors to urge such controls upon them.
Lately, however, the biggest source of resentment among rural residents has become Cortez’s new recreation center. The $8 million center, which opened Jan. 26, was financed by a 0.55-cent sales tax that was approved by city voters in November 2002.
Many county-dwellers were angry that they could not vote in the election, as they do most of their shopping in Cortez and are essentially forced to pay the sales tax.
“It’s one of the main things that irritates the hell out of us in the county,” said Neva Kindred, a county resident for three decades. “City people get to vote on everything in the county, but people outside the city limits don’t get to vote on what takes place in the city, although it affects us.”
The situation arises because Cortez residents live both within the city and county, while county-dwellers don’t also live in the city. There is no law that allows people to vote in elections in places where they do not live, even if they shop there. For instance, people living in San Juan County, Utah — who frequently make purchases in Montezuma County — don’t have any right to vote in local elections.
Some city officials say the city would have been willing to put the rec center to a countywide vote.
City Councilman Jim Herrick commented that he would have been glad to have rural residents cast their ballots on the sales-tax issue. “If there had been a county-wide vote, I think it would have passed by an even greater margin than it did,” he said. ”I wish there would have been a way to put it up to a county-wide vote.”
County officials, however, say they weren’t approached about the matter and that such a vote wouldn’t have been legally binding, anyway.
“The only way it could have been (binding) was if it were a county-wide sales tax that was proposed,” said County Administrator Tom Weaver.
“There are people that think they should have the right to vote in city elections, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. I always say, if you want to say what’s going on in the city, you need to move to town.”
"There’s always that spark and if you put a little gasoline on it, it will burn.”
“As long as I can remember, it’s been a tug of war between the city government and the county as to who’s going to run the show,” commented longtime resident Neva Kindred.
Kent Lindsay, who is in the final year of an eight-year stint on the Montezuma County Commission, said he remembers when city-county interactions were fraught with friction.
“When Kelly Wilson and I first got on (the commission, in 1996), there was a lot of animosity,” Lindsay said. “One of our goals was to try and resolve that. We’re able to talk with the city government now and they’re able to talk with us, and that’s good.”
But Jim Herrick, who has been a member of Cortez City Council for eight of the last 10 years, said there is room for improvement. “I don’t think relations currently are bad, but they’re not as good as they could be,” he said. “They’ve never been as good as they could be. I think there are a lot of areas we could work together on.”
How the two governmental entities interact is largely dependent, of course, on who makes up the boards. Weaver said he has seen the relationship go from bad to good and back again several times, depending on who was elected to office.
“In the 20 years I’ve been in this job, I’ve seen a lot of changes,” Weaver said. “In the days of Roy Henneman and Floyd Ray and Bill Bauer (commissioners in the late 1970s and early ’80s), I don’t think there was much of a relationship (between the city and county). Back then we were talking about stuff like the landfill.”
The county was ready to build its landfill in a different location east of Cortez because of arguments it was having with the city, he said.
“What changed all that was when Bob Maynes and Tom Colbert got elected (in 1984). They came in with a different focus and said, ‘Let’s go talk to the city guys,’ and everything changed.
“It’s all about communication. When it all falls apart is when boards quit talking to each other and start assuming what they think the other one is up to.”
Weaver said an example of the effectiveness of communication occurred in the early ’90s, when a trailer park on Cortez’s Main Street had a sewer-line problem that resulted in raw sewage leaking onto the ground.
At a rather testy meeting, city officials argued that forcing the owner to fix the problem was the county’s responsibility because the county had a health department and the city did not. County officials maintained that the problem was within city limits and should be handled by the city. The meeting ended without any resolution.
Meanwhile, at the trailer park, “It was starting to smell bad,” Weaver recalled. “Then Susan Keck, who was the city manager at the time, called me on the phone and said, ‘How are we going to handle this?’”
Weaver suggested the city act as its own board of health and pay the county’s septic inspector to look into the situation. He visited the city and advised the city to send a cease-and-desist order to the park owner. “That took care of the whole thing,” Weaver said.
The land-use arguments
Over the years, the county and city have squabbled over far more complicated issues than a sewer-line leak. One of the biggest bones of contention has always been land-use policy.
For decades the city has had building codes and zoning regulations. The county, on the other hand, has been loath to adopt new regulations. Until the early ’90s, the county’ subdivision process consisted primarily of the commissioners issuing variances. In 1998 the board adopted a land-use plan, but its zoning system is voluntary. The county does not even now have a mandatory building code.
As the county population began to swell in the early ’90s, real-estate agents and city officials pressured the commissioners to develop stricter land-use controls. Cortez officials particularly wanted a say in how development would occur anywhere within three miles of the city. The commissioners resisted.
Discussions deteriorated into an ongoing argument that flowed like lava beneath the surface and erupted anew at any meeting between the two entities – including the regular meetings the city and county had about the airport, which they jointly operated at the time.
Over-generalizations are risky, but it’s probably safe to say that a large portion of the county’s population of 24,000 is fiercely opposed to regulations, while most of the city’s 8,000 residents are used to them. Thus, council members argued for more rules; the commissioners said no.
When, for instance, then-Councilman Bob Diederich complained about junk cars blighting the landscape, Commissioner Colbert responded, “You can’t expect somebody else at their own expense to provide you with scenery for 30 years.” In an exchange with then-Mayor Jerry Wiltgen, Colbert also commented, “Maybe some people like a trashy neighborhood, and if they like it, God bless them.”
In November 1994, county voters passed a non-binding resolution calling for a land-use plan to be adopted by July 1996. The commissioners remained reluctant.
At their Monday meetings they were urged by city representatives, Realtors and the Montezuma County Economic Development council to hurry up with a land-use plan. They were also advised by angry county residents not to implement more regulations.
“I can’t understand why the city wants to tell us what we can do with our land,” commented rancher Chester Tozer at one meeting, speaking for many other rural residents.
‘Beyond bad judgment’
The already-tense relations between the city and county perhaps reached a nadir in December 1994. A county crew was working to install a chairlift in the Justice Building, which was then shared by the city and county. One county worker used a gasoline-powered saw to cut into a concrete wall. The saw emitted carbon-monoxide fumes that sickened 22 municipal employees in nearby offices. Fifteen underwent blood tests and one was admitted to the hospital for observation, though no one was seriously injured.
After the incident, the city demanded $1,300 from the county for lost time, overtime, and the blood tests. Bill Ray, then city manager, charged that the mishap went “beyond bad judgment.” Colbert countered that the county was “tired of being abused and accused.” The county eventually sent the bill to its insurance company.
Ray, who became city manager in 1992, was frequently blamed for making relations between the two government entities worse, or at least not making them better. Widely regarded as smart and capable but none too tactful, Ray never hesitated to goad the county about its need for more regulations.
County officials remember Ray as posing a problem, though all said they had respect for him.
“When Bill Ray got here, things got a little nasty,” recalled Wilson, who like Lindsay is finishing his eighth year on the commission. “He insisted that land-use planning should be dictated. You don’t do that kind of thing in Montezuma County.”
“When Bill Ray was city manager, things were kind of touchy between him and the commissioners,” agreed Helen McClellan, who served on the commission from 1992 to ’96.
“He had big ideas, and we all kind of said, ‘Let’s take this a little slower.’ When he said the city had to make decisions as to growth and roads within a three-mile area, that didn’t go over too well. But I couldn’t help but like Bill.”
City officials were insistent that Cortez needed some say over development on its fringes, where annexation might someday occur. They cited concerns about streets that wouldn’t align (such as the side streets off Empire between Mildred Road and Highway 491), homes not built to code, and properties without sewer service.
Once the squabbling died down, Weaver said, the problem was more or less resolved.
“It’s funny how the solution’s always pretty simple,” he said. It was decided that properties near Cortez could follow county rules unless the owners wanted to create tracts smaller than three acres, the county’s minimum lot size. Then the owners would have to build to city standards.
The county also agreed to submit plans for subdivisions near the city’s borders to city officials so any concerns could be addressed.
Ray was fired in 1998 for a “lack of communication” with the city council, and current City Manager Hal Shepherd was hired. Relations between the city and county have improved since then, officials say.
But Weaver cautioned that managers can’t shoulder all the blame when government entities don’t get along.
“If boards aren’t in the spirit of cooperation, managers aren’t in it,” he noted.
Still, county officials say relations have improved with the city since Shepherd arrived.
“I think Hal Shepherd is one of the best things that’s ever happened to the city of Cortez,” Lindsay said. “He brings a real professionalism and works well with the different agencies in the area.”
Shepherd said he does believe relations are better than they were several years ago. “Relations are pretty good,” he said. “I don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and make a call. I enjoy working with the county and think we’ve made some significant strides, in the years I’ve been here, to improve that relationship.”
He and others cited several instances in which the two entities have worked well together in the past few years:
- When the county decided to build a new jail, it purchased 35 acres, more land than it needed, west of Mildred Road. The city was concerned about how the infrastructure would go in. The county gave the city eight acres at the corner of Mildred and Empire in return for the city extending and paving Park and Driscoll streets and providing sewer to the new jail. “That was a win-win for the taxpayers,” Shepherd said.
- The city and county recently agreed to contribute $10,000 apiece to finance a study of the feasibility of a tram from Cortez to Mesa Verde National Park.
- The county contributed $75,000 to help build a new city animal shelter and is sharing the cost of running it. “That’s a pretty good deal,” Herrick said. “Now the county is paying half and, before, they weren’t really paying anything.”
But funding issues sometimes still divide the two governmental bodies. Through most of the 1990s, Cortez coffers swelled as sales-tax revenues grew annually, while the county struggled with declining property-tax revenues. Cortez was able to fund its library, parks and other amenities with little difficulty.
Now, the recession has hit the city hard, while the county’s revenues are relatively stable. City officials sometimes complain that the county isn’t contributing much ($11,000) to the Cortez Public Library’s annual $278,000 budget even though the library is widely used by county residents; or to economic development, for which the city kicks in $60,000 and the county $5,000.
“If they put in the same amount we do (to economic development), it would be great,” Herrick said. “Right now we’re just kind of keeping a candle burning and not accomplishing more than having a warm body to answer the phone.”
But Weaver said it was the city that revived the area’s economic-development effort, which had fizzled out several years ago, and that it’s always been a city responsibility. County officials also point out that county residents help fund all the city’s operations by shopping in town and paying Cortez’s 4.05 percent sales tax.
Shepherd countered that the city takes that into account by not tacking any out-of-city surcharge onto fees for using the library, golf course, or new recreation center.
But while there continue to be differences of opinion over such matters, both city and county officials say those differences are relatively minor, the result of the boards having different interests to serve.
Lindsay said there are bound to be occasional disagreements. “Each entity has its own responsibilities and areas to protect, and we have to respect that.”
Wilson agreed, adding that the city and county need to get along. “We’re not big enough that we can afford to stand here and fight each other,” he said.
Herrick said he would like to see the two groups join efforts more often. For instance, he suggested both boards allow representatives of non-profits to make their pleas for money to them simultaneously. But, he added, relations are good for the most part.
“We have different philosophies and different constituencies,” Herrick said. “I think it’s amazing we get along as well as we do.”