Written on a whiteboard in La Plata County Manager Joanne Spina’s office is a quote that reads, “a public office is a public trust.” Her career backs that up.
Spina, who was officially named county manager in July, is closing in on nearly 30 years working for the La Plata County government. Since she graduated college in 1975, all but five years have been in the public sector.
“I’ve always been drawn to that notion of service,” she said.
Spina, 62, was raised on a farm in Methuen, Massachusetts, a small town about 30 miles north of Boston. She lived in a traditional Italian family household, with her parents, two older sisters, grandparents and her father’s sister all under the same roof.
Her father eventually sold the property and took a job with Essex County. Her mother, Spina said, worked as a hairdresser.
At Castle Junior College, in Windham, New Hampshire, Spina earned an associates degree in business while simultaneously organizing blood donor recruitment for the Red Cross.
She graduated and began to work at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., in the International Finance Corporation, which helps grow the private sector in developing countries.
However, in 1980, Spina and her future husband, Rob Freeman, decided to move West to Denver in search of a more outdoors lifestyle. But the big city vibe of Colorado’s capitol didn’t fit right, and after a year, they quit their jobs and embarked on an extended trip all over the American West. They also went north to Alaska and into Canada’s Northern Territories, coming within 250 miles from the Arctic Circle.
“In the course of that trip we did a lot of soul searching about where we wanted to plant our roots,” Spina said. “As a result of that trip, Durango was the place we knew we felt at home.”
Spina and Freeman moved to Southwest Colorado in 1985. She started working for the La Plata County court system. In 1988, she took a job as an administrator for the Sheriff’s Office.
But she has not lived her life in an office cubicle. In 1989, Spina and Freeman ice climbed Mexico’s first and second highest peaks – Pico de Orizaba (18,491 feet) and Popocatépetl (17,802 feet).
Freeman died in 2011.
Back in the workaday, Spina took a position in 1993 as administrative assistant to the county manager, and then moved on from that role in 2006 to become assistant county manager.
Even then, she made an impression for her work ethic and dedication to the county, said Josh Joswick, who served as county commissioner from 1993 to 2005.
“She knows what to do. She’s a great person. I can’t say enough good things about her,” Joswick said. “Personally, I don’t think they could have done any better than to hire someone that has her knowledge.”
Earlier this year, then county manager Joe Kerby announced he was leaving his post to serve the same role for Benton County in Oregon.
The La Plata County Board of Commissioners unanimously chose Spina, who previously had two stints as interim county manager, to take the helm. She is the first ever female county manager.
“We all agreed that she is hands down the best person for the job with what the county is going through right now,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt.
A combination of reduced residential property taxes and an oil and gas bust has caused a host of issues for La Plata County’s operating budget. From 2016 to 2017, the budget decreased 26 percent, from $104.7 million to $77.5 million.
The sharp drop is likely to result in a cutback of many services, with tough decisions ahead, Spina said. In her three-decade long tenure with the county, she said the current situation poses the most significant financial challenges.
“I’ve had some folks say, ‘Are you crazy for taking this on right now?’” Spina said. “But, to me, we need to live within our means, and we’re working hard as an organization to do that.”
Spina said the county was not blindsided by the sharp decline – for nearly 20 years, the county has set aside reserves to meet infrastructure needs, without having to ask for a property tax increase or bond.
Still, there is only so much preparation until those losses add up. Already Spina is looking and implanting innovative cost-saving techniques, such as maximizing employees’ work time.
“Every department is going through a pretty creative process to come up with ways to save the county money,” Lachelt said. “She’s extremely innovative.”
In her ever-diminishing free time, Spina is a self-admitted gym rat at the Durango Community Recreation Center, where even there she fields questions about county matters.
“You never take off the county manager hat, so when you’re in the super market and you have a question, I’m happy to answer it,” Spina said. “That’s part of the charm of living here.”