Talk of money and business dominated the debate Tuesday between Board of County Commissioners candidates Brad Blake and Cynthia Roebuck.
The candidates discussed how to cope with falling La Plata County tax revenue, whether fees are too high or not enough and whether a new airport project would be responsible spending.
Blake, a Republican, and Roebuck, a Democrat, are vying to replace Republican commissioner Bobby Lieb on the three-person board. Lieb is stepping down to run for county treasurer.
The candidates expressed broad agreement on several issues at the Durango Chamber of Commerce-sponsored debate at the DoubleTree Hotel. Blake stuck more closely to talking points, repeatedly saying county government needs to make it easier for businesses to operate.
“We need to be more industry-friendly and more business-friendly,” he said.
Blake, who was born and raised in Durango, owns Blake Mechanical, an industrial plumbing business founded by his father, Preston. Blake also owns a company that installs large-scale solar projects throughout the Southwest.
Roebuck is a land-use planning consultant who has lived in Durango since 1981. She currently works for Ted Wright, a Durango real estate attorney.
In one point of disagreement, Roebuck said counties should be allowed to ban hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” while Blake said counties should not be permitted to do so.
Blake said, “sometimes, the county comes across as unfriendly to that (oil and gas) industry.”
Blake said his mother came to Durango in the early 1960s while working for Shell, and fracking in the San Juan Basin began even before then. “There’s never been a problem with fracking, and I think it really has enhanced production,” he said.
La Plata County depends heavily on the natural gas and oil industry for tax revenue, but that well has dried up as natural-gas prices fell and basins elsewhere boomed. La Plata County was one of the first local governments in the region to enact gas and oil regulations.
Roebuck said the county’s regulations are working. “We are currently well served by the regulations in place,” Roebuck said.
Both candidates said they could support a major airport project, depending on cost and other specifics. Blake said a $40 million estimate that has been circulating “seems optimistic.”
Roebuck said the airport is important to the gas and oil and tourism industries.
“I support increasing and continuing to have our services, but I would be cautious as to how to go about that,” she said.
Roebuck said the county should amend its land-use code and pass a comprehensive plan without hiring a new round of consultants. Previous efforts have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, only to see the county shelve the plans.
“We don’t need to hire new consultants,” she said. “I think we need to get on with it.”
In her closing remarks, Roebuck vowed to work hard as commissioner.
“I will be a committed, full-time county commissioner,” she said. “You have my full attention.”
Blake said he’s willing to fight for county residents against meddling from state and federal agencies.
“We need an advocate for the people of La Plata County,” he said, and against the Colorado Department of Transportation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The winner of the Roebuck-Blake District 1 contest will take office in January. County commissioners earn $72,500 annually, and the position can be a springboard into Colorado politics.
J. Paul Brown, a former La Plata County commissioner and candidate for state House who attended the debate, said people in politics pay attention to county commissioners.
“I tell folks, the county commissioner’s job is the most important elected position in Colorado,” he said.