EDITORIAL: The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Part One

Local Republican activist Carl Mellberg was doing his best to keep an upbeat, positive tone, but it wasn’t easy to do, I suspect.

He’d just listened to a 25-minute debate between County commissioners Ronnie Maez and Michael Whiting about the proposed price tag for a new County law enforcement complex — Sheriff’s offices and County detention center — and Mr. Mellberg finally felt compelled to interrupt the debate to assure the Board of County Commissioners that it didn’t matter, to him, what the price tag was, or what kind of facility got built, or what style of tax increase was ultimately placed on the shoulders of the community.

He was an advocate. No matter what.

Mr. Mellberg, addressing the three County commissioners during the Board of County Commissioners’ Tuesday, July 13 work session:

“If I may, let me say this. Whatever the bottom line is, that you guys come up with… you know, whatever the hard facts are, that you guys come up with… the cost, and how we’re going to fund it… I want you to know that you have an advocate. Okay?  I am voluntarily going to do everything I know how to do, to try and sell this to the public, and try to get it passed on the November ballot.

“Just so you know that. I’m working for you guys.

“And I need your help. I’d like to know that you’re on the same page as I am.”

Only a handful of people were present to hear Mr. Mellberg’s expression of support for a multi-million-dollar tax increase: the three County commissioners, the usual suspects from the local media, and the BOCC’s core administrative staff.

I admit to feeling a bit uncomfortable during Mr. Mellberg’s attempts at encouragement, being myself on the opposite side of the debate… and somewhat surprised to hear an intelligent person like Mr. Mellberg publicly state that he will support any BOCC decision — any decision, whatsoever — so long as it leads to a tax increase measure on this November’s ballot.

I really have no idea whether Pagosa Springs SUN reporter Randi Pierce — seated next to me on Tuesday morning — supports the idea of a 20- or 30-year tax increase dedicated to an expensive new facility to house, on average, maybe 30 alleged criminals. Perhaps Ms. Pierce is, like myself, skeptical of the need for this facility, considering that we’ve done without a County jail facility for nearly 2 1/2 years, and considering Commissioner Michael Whiting’s comment, a few minutes earlier in the debate, that “it’s much cheaper to house our inmates in Durango than to spend $17 million on a new jail. Much cheaper.”

I also have no idea whether any of the County administrative staff sitting in the room would mark their ballots “Yes” to approve some type of law enforcement complex with a multi-million-dollar price tag. It’s not really appropriate for the County staff to argue for reasonable government decisions in a BOCC work session; their job is to do what the commissioners ask them to do, nothing more and nothing less.

I mentioned in a recent editorial that, three years ago, the Town of Pagosa Springs had sought approval of a multi-million dollar tax increase to fund a municipal recreation center near the high school, and that the facility cost had been priced at $18 million… but the tax increase on the ballot had allowed the sale of municipal bonds up to $45 million. (To cover the interest payments to the bond investors, and the other miscellaneous costs of borrowing millions of dollars.)

The voters decided that maybe a recreation center has not the best way to invest our local taxes, as we were digging ourselves out of the worst economic situation since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But what, then, is a good investment of taxpayer money?

Are the County commissioners and their supporters (such as Mr. Mellberg) spending a lot of time and effort trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist — while a much more serious community issue goes unaddressed?

Is the BOCC hoping to spend millions of dollars, putting an expensive band-aid on a scraped knee — while ignoring a spreading cancer?

While photographing this month’s Fourth of July parade, I was surprised to see the distinctive and colorful “Visiting Angels” vehicles sporting some (new?) lettering on their car windows:

“Now Hiring Caregivers”

We’ve all seen this same message prominently displayed lately… at the entrance to City Market, and Walmart, and countless other businesses around town. But for some reason, I didn’t expect to see the message on the windows of the “Visiting Angels” vehicles.

If any type of local business should be looking forward to successful growth, I assumed it would be “Visiting Angels.”

Archuleta County is one of the ‘oldest’ counties in Colorado — a population with a median age of nearly 50 years. (U.S. Census.) Over the next decade, the demand for senior care services is pretty much guaranteed to increase, as current residents gradually age into the period of life when care assistance is sorely needed.

I also assume that home care professionals are earning a higher hourly wage than what’s typical in Pagosa’s hospitality-industry economy. Given that assumption, I find it unsettling that such a (potentially successful) business would decide to announce a shortage of employees on the windows of their vehicles.

I also assume something else, based on the numerous community meetings I’ve attended during the past two years: that the shortage of employees, across all sectors of the Pagosa Springs economy, is due largely to a shortage of affordable housing.

That is to say, housing that matches the wages paid to workers here.

During Tuesday’s 90-minute BOCC work session, about of third of the meeting was taken up discussing plans to build a new County facility to house alleged criminals.

Not a word was spoken, during those 90 minutes, about housing for the 6,000 workers who keep the wheels of commerce turning in Archuleta County. Many of those workers currently have no place to live, other than in a tent or automobile.

We all recognize that it’s terribly inconvenient for the County Sheriff to transport alleged criminals back and forth from the La Plata County jail in Durango, on a daily basis — even if it happens to be surprisingly cost effective in the County budget.

For comparison purposes, we might consider that about a quarter of our workforce — about 1,500 workers — currently commute to Durango, Bayfield or elsewhere in La Plata County, on a daily basis, for jobs that hopefully pay a decent wage. (Region 9 Economic Development District data, 2015.)

For some odd reason I am reminded of a Mother Goose rhyme chanted to me as a child, about an old woman who lived in a shoe…

Read Part Two…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.