by Gail Binkly | December 6, 2019 7:45 am
Accusations of conflicts of interest and money-wasting flew during several different budget-related discussions at the Montezuma County commission’s meeting on Nov. 26. The arguments eventually ended on civil notes, but only after a great deal of acrimony.
The most vociferous disagreement occurred between commissioners Larry Don Suckla and Jim Candelaria during a discussion with road supervisor Rob Englehart about his department’s budget. The two commissioners were split over how much money to take out of the county’s general-fund reserves and give to the road department.
Administrator Shak Powers said if $2 million were transferred to the road department, there would be $13.7 million left in reserve in the general fund.
“To me that’s too much money in the general fund,” said Suckla.
Candelaria said the commission had already agreed on that at a budget workshop Nov. 19, but Suckla said he did not agree and it was “ripping the taxpayers off ” to leave so much in reserve instead of using the money to pave and maintain roads. Candelaria said the commission has to fund the entire county, not just the road department, and that enough had to be left in reserve to manage emergencies such as a possible shutdown of the federal government. Suckla insisted the reserve is larger than it needs to be.
Candelaria made several references to a five-year road plan that Englehart had developed at Candelaria’s request.
“I could care less about the five-year plan,” Suckla said, later calling it “your stupid, stupid five-year plan.” He said “what’s responsible is fixing the roads, not keeping it in the bank.” He told Candelaria, “You’re the one that came up with the goddamn five-year plan and I disagree with it. If we’re going to get down to this bullshit, let’s start talking.”
He then began accusing Candelaria of making decisions based on self-interest. Suckla asked Candelaria why he “voted against the [road to the] landfill being paved but you want to pave the road two miles up there and spend an extra $400,000 to Casey McClellan’s pit?”
“I didn’t say that,” Candelaria broke in, but Suckla kept talking.
“How come you want to sell our crusher and cost us three times as much money when you have gravel pits? Are you trying to do things for you or for the people? The last thing I heard was, by God, we’ve got to do this jail and we need to buy a million dollars’ worth of cars and we need to sell the crusher, so in my opinion you are voting for the government and not for the people.
“Why do you not want to help the people? Why do you want to wait till Keenan and I are gone to hoard the money?”
Suckla then asked again why Candelaria opposed paving the road to the landfill. Candelaria said he was concerned about the cost.
“Then why are you for paying $600,000 to pave a road that goes two miles to three gravel crushers?” Suckla demanded.
“I’m not for that,” Candelaria said, saying that he and Englehart had talked about the issue. “Our trucks go up and down that road significantly. I said taxpayer dollars are going up and down that road every day and it’s beating them to death.”
Candelaria said he agreed about the importance of roads but “I don’t think spending that money at one time is the most responsible thing we can do.”
Later in the discussion, Suckla said, “You keep talking that we’re competing with private enterprise and we need to sell our crusher.”
Candelaria responded, “ I do believe we are competing with private industry.”
That led Englehart to ask, “How are we competing against private enterprise on that? We only supply for one person, that’s the county… I don’t think I’m competing against private enterprise.”
“If we was to get rid of the county gravel crusher . . .,” Suckla began, but Candelaria interjected, ”Nobody is saying that at all.”
But Suckla insisted, “I heard you say it! If you did that you would give somebody such an advantage over the other two gravel crushers because then they would have volume – they would be their own Walmart – and the other two gravel crushers, you’re going to put them out of business. Instead of competing with private enterprise you’re actually going to kill it.”
The commissioners ultimately agreed to take an additional $3.7 million from the reserves in the general fund and transfer that to the capital fund for the road department.
Powers said it would leave the general fund at its lowest balance since before 2013, but Ertel said he was comfortable with that, as the fund had simply been sitting there.
The Nov. 26 discussion was not the first time Candelaria was accused of possible conflicts of interest.
During the public-comment period at the commissioners’ meeting Nov. 19, Gala Pock of Pleasant View said that Kinder Morgan had begun drilling a new well not far from where she lives and the only trucks she saw hauling materials were those of Candelaria Construction. In the past, she said, Kinder Morgan hired many independent trucking companies to haul gravel.
She noted that Candelaria had voted recently to approve permits for two new Kinder Morgan wells and said he had made the motion without providing any contingencies in the permits.
“This looks to me like a clear violation of ethics,” Pock said. “I am requesting he recuse himself from any decisions concerning permits for Kinder Morgan.”
Candelaria responded that his corporation “is a legal corporation in Colorado and can work for anybody.” He said he hires someone to run it and “he’s not working for Kinder Morgan, he’s working for Crossfire [apparently a reference to Crossfire Aggregate Services].” He also said there were in fact contingencies in the permits involving methods of handling truck traffic.
“That’s not the issue,” Pock said.
Candelaria said Kinder Morgan had met every requirement of the county’s land-use code and there was no reason to reject its applications.
Pock reiterated that that was not the issue she was raising. “The issue is that Jim Candelaria is profiting from business that his business is getting and that business is with Kinder Morgan,” she said.
Candelaria repeated that his company is incorporated in Colorado and can work for anyone in the state, then demanded, “What is your point?”
“My point is there’s a conflict of interest,” Pock said.
Later, M.B. McAfee of Lewis commented on the same subject, saying that a conflict of interest is “the appearance of a conflict, not whether it’s actual or not.”
When Candelaria ran for the commission in 2018, she said, he said his son would be taking over his business.
Candelaria said that was correct and was what had happened.
McAfee said that he had not fully disclosed his business arrangements and it still appeared that he is deriving profit from hauling gravel.
Candelaria interrupted to ask whether she had checked with the Secretary of State’s office.
“I am making a comment,” she said. “I think you need to be very transparent about what your business arrangement is. The fact that you approve permits that follow the land-use code is irrelevant unless it has something in it about conflicts of interest, which it doesn’t….I believe it is your responsibility to make it clear to the public that you are not profiting from the work that you do with Kinder Morgan or other companies with the CC construction trucks.”
Candelaria merely said she should go to the Secretary of State’s office “and see what it takes to be a corporation in good standing in the state.”
Neither Suckla nor Candelaria responded to phone calls from the Four Corners Free Press seeking comments and clarifications.
The Colorado Secretary of State’s website doesn’t appear to address the issue of elected officials having financial conflicts of interest involving businesses they own.
The website for Candelaria Construction does not clarify whether Jim Candelaria or his son or someone else is operating the business. It says that the company specializes in the construction of homes and commercial buildings, as well as “excavation and roadwork and land development.”
Wanting time off
After Englehart finished his discussion on Nov. 26 and the commissioners had agreed to give an additional $3.7 million to the road department, county coroner George Deavers came before the board. His budget also prompted considerable disagreement, this time between Deavers and Ertel.
Deavers had asked for $19,230 in his 2020 budget to pay deputy coroners who could take over for him so he could have time off. Ertel objected, saying that in previous years there was no money in the coroner’s budget for deputies, but that amount increased to $2,700 in 2018 and $7,000 in 2019.
“I’m not sure the general fund needs to be paying for those guys to give you time off. If you want time off you pay them out of your salary,” Ertel said.
Deavers was astonished. “There’s no other coroner in the state that pays their deputies out of their salary, especially at the salary that the coroner makes,” he said.
Colorado’s counties are categorized according to factors such as their population, and Montezuma County is in Category 3. Of all the coroners in that category in the state, Deavers said, he is the lowest paid. Other counties have full-time and part-time paid deputies. “I have volunteer deputies.”
“I’m going to tell you what, Bud,” Ertel commented. “When I was in the business the coroner’s office had his deputies and he didn’t have to pay them a damn thing. You have kind of screwed that deal up.” Ertel said Deavers had caused friction with “the people that are in the funeral business in this town so they won’t have anything to do with you.”
Ertel repeated, “I don’t think we’re responsible for paying your deputies to get you time off.”
“So I’m supposed to be the only employee for Montezuma County that doesn’t get a day off and has to work 24/7,” Deavers said.
Deavers said Montezuma County has had the most deaths of all the Category 3 counties every year until last year, when Montrose had 135 deaths compared to Montezuma County’s 125.
He currently has three certified deputies.
Ertel raised the issue of hospice nurses, but Deavers said they do not go on other calls, only on hospice-related calls.
“None of the 125 deaths were hospice deaths. That would kick it up another 125 or 150,” he said.
Ertel asked how much money Deavers’ office receives from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe for providing them services, and Deavers said none. “Why not?” Ertel asked.
“I don’t know, that’s you guys’ doings,” Deavers said.
“They’re a sovereign nation, you’re a Montezuma County elected official, why haven’t you gone to that tribe and said, ‘If you want my services we need to talk’?” Ertel asked.
Deavers said he believed that was something the commissioners took care of because they have authority over his budget, but Ertel said Deavers is an elected official and therefore should be seeking money from the tribe.
“You’re not elected officials?” Deavers asked. Ertel said the county collects nothing from the tribe in the form of property taxes.
Deavers said he was willing to approach the tribe. “But that has nothing to do with what I’m here for today,” he said. He said he needs four or five deputies, adding that the coroner in Montrose County has 12.
“What happens if I get sick or get hurt? Say I’m in the hospital with pneumonia and can’t go out on calls, what do we do? We’ve got to have a coroner.”
Ertel brought up a current plan to start a pathology lab in Montezuma County, which would generate revenue. Deavers said the pathologist in question has purchased a home in Durango and is willing to work at Montezuma County’s lab.
Ertel said he will be more comfortable with the coroner’s budget going up if the pathology lab is opened.
“I’ll gamble with you this year,” he told Deavers, urging him again to approach the Ute Mountain Utes. The commissioners said they would leave Deavers’ budget as he had presented it.
The commissioners will formally vote on approving the county’s overall budget in December.
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