Battling La Plata County’s continuing budget woes and overhauling the county’s much-outdated land-use code are going to be the main issues facing whoever wins the one commissioner seat up for grabs this November.
Incumbent Brad Blake, a Republican first elected in 2014, is being challenged by Clyde Church, a Democrat, for the District 1 seat, which represents the western side of the county, though all registered voters in the county can vote on the seat.
So far, Blake, 57, and Church, 71, have run a cordial campaign, absent of any attacks or strong criticism. At candidate forums the past few weeks, the two candidates have actually agreed on many of the issues.
“I find it a compliment he agrees with me on so many issues,” Blake said, almost in jest. “It tells me I’m doing a good job.”
Blake, who lives on Florida Mesa, would be entering his last term as a La Plata County commissioner if elected, after narrowly defeating Democratic candidate Cynthia Roebuck by a vote of 10,933 to 10,843 in 2014.
Since, Blake points to his contributions in navigating a dwindling county budget as revenues from oil and gas continue their decades-long decline, especially as the budget relates to the county’s facility needs.
“When I first came into office, we had $60-plus million in facility needs,” he said. “Over the last four years, we will have a majority of those building needs met at $30 million, which is a great accomplishment.”
And, Blake highlights his ability to work with the two Democratic commissioners on the board – Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff – which has created one of the most stable commissions in recent years.
“We, as county commissioners, work together to solve problems instead of push partisan agendas,” Blake said. “You may not all always agree on everything, but you come to a consensus because it’s good to the county.”
Church, for his part, says he will bring an even more moderate voice to the commission, calling Blake a “Tea Party Republican” and climate-change denier.
Blake said he left the Tea Party after infighting began in the group and says he believes the climate is changing, but the jury is out as to how much humans are responsible.
“I’ve owned two Priuses and run a solar company, so (that criticism) is pretty funny to me,” Blake said. “I’m not sure Clyde has done that.”
Church has repeatedly called out Blake as being inaccessible to the public, pointing to the fact he is the only sitting commissioner who does not hold office hours.
“We need better full-time representation,” said Church, who is retired and said if elected, this would be his only job. “We have to stay close to the people.”
Blake, in response, says the district he covers is way out on the western part of the county, with people who would rather not travel to Durango to meet him. Instead, he makes multiple visits a week to residents where they are.
“I’m not available one day of the week, I’m available every day of the week,” he said.
Blake said he is a commissioner first but also runs a real estate company that owns and manages rentals. He also owns Blake Mechanical, a mechanical and plumbing service, which is run by his wife and son.
Down to the issues, the two candidates have similar goals, though their methods at times are slightly different.
Blake said one of the top priorities for the county is to update the land-use code, as well as streamline the process for developers and landowners who want to propose a project on their property.
But it has been a controversial issue, with a majority of opposition coming from Blake’s base – rural residents in the county.
“Folks out in the community, especially the rural people, they’re not against updating and improving the process,” he said. “They realize the process is probably one of the biggest flaws (for the county).”
It gets a little murkier when the concept of zoning is introduced, Blake said. Zoning may make sense in some parts of the county, and it may not in others.
The main concern he hears from rural residents is that it may be complicated and expensive to change a property’s land-use designation. If that process were made simple, he’d be open to support zoning.
“I’m optimistic we can get something done,” he said. “We do really need to improve and change the code. Not only for economic development, we’ve got to move into a more modern age.”
By updating the land-use code and improving the process for new projects, Blake said it could help to solicit new development and businesses and, therefore, bring in new revenue to the county’s troubled budget.
Since 2010, La Plata County’s property tax revenue has declined about 50 percent as a result of the downturn in the oil and gas industry.
Blake said reducing over-burdensome regulations might also help drive in new business to fill this void.
“New businesses bring more jobs, more revenue into the county, and those are the types of things we need; we need economic growth and development,” he said.
Church, too, said the land-use code needs to be addressed. And to bring in new businesses, he agreed, “we need to give the tools to speed up and take roadblocks out of their way.”
As for zoning, Church said zoning should be left up to the 12 separate districts throughout the county.
“They know their communities, they know their neighbors,” he said.
Church said the county should be more proactive organizing a vision for the economic future of the region.
“We’ve marketed ourselves as a historic railroad and mining town, and that’s great, but what else is there? How can we diversify beyond tourist economy?” he said.
As for the declining budget, both candidates agree: If voters are unwilling to approve a tax increase, the community as a whole must decide what services it is willing to live without.
Church said he’d like more public input in this decision-making.
“As you cut services to the public, they need to help make the decision,” he said.
Blake said cutting services and adding new fees can go only so far with helping curb budget declines. He, too, said it may be necessary to ask voters again for a modest tax increase to help services, such as road and bridge improvements.
“Ultimately, it is up to the voters of La Plata County to either raise taxes upon themselves or decrease services upon themselves,” Blake said. “But at some point, roads will become bad enough that you have to do something.”
La Plata County is notoriously a purple county. According to La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Parker, there are 11,113 registered Democrats, 10,402 Republicans and 13,242 unaffiliated voters.
The last time the three-person Board of County Commissioners was held by one party was from 1940 to 1948, when all three positions were held by Republicans, Parker said.
Church, however, said he’d represent all county residents. He, too, was a Republican, but left when the party was influenced by the Tea Party.
“I want to represent everybody, even those people who voted against me,” he said. “Everyone needs a voice.”
Blake said his track record working on the commission with two other Democrats is evidence enough that the commission can work together, regardless of party affiliation.
“I believe that’s what makes it work – you listen,” Blake said. “If you spend your energy fighting over things, nothing much gets done.”