EDITORIAL: Death by a Thousand Cuts, Part One

We’re going to be talking here about cuts… the kind of cuts that make you bleed, and also about the kind of cuts that governments rarely apply to tax rates… or perhaps more likely, the kind of cuts governments make to budgets — and to services — when the economy is struggling.

National governments… local governments.  It’s basically the same problem.

At an Archuleta Board of County Commissioners’ meeting back in early October, when County Sheriff Rich Valdez was justifying his decision to relocate his offices and operations to a location near the County Airport, he described briefly the process of having his blood checked for elevated carbon monoxide (CO) levels.

Three of his deputies had recently been hospitalized for unidentified health problems, and the Sheriff had become convinced that the environmental conditions inside the Archuleta County Courthouse were the cause of the health issues. The specific chemical culprit that immediately suggested itself had been hydrogen sulfide — H2S, a compound with a smell like rotten eggs, and one that can be easily identified as lingering around certain geothermal hot springs. Exposure to heightened levels of H2S are known to cause respiratory problems, and one of the Sheriff’s deputies had indeed been hospitalized with serious respiratory complications.

Repeated testing of the air within the Sheriff’s offices, however, had revealed no detectible levels of H2S.

Another ordinary compound that can cause respiratory problems is carbon monoxide, a common by-product of combustion — and one often found in unacceptable levels in buildings with poorly adjusted or poorly maintained heating systems. Sheriff Valdez and Undersheriff Tonya Hamilton had both done some testing of their personal carbon monoxide blood levels, courtesy of a device used by our local EMTs and ambulance drivers, and at the October meeting, the Sheriff was suggesting to the BOCC that he suspected carbon monoxide within the Courthouse might be the cause — or at least part of the cause — of his staff’s health issues. (Subsequent tests failed to identify dangerous levels of CO inside the Courthouse.)

Here’s Sheriff Valdez, describing a conversation with a visiting health expert about the dangers, to his staff, from carbon monoxide exposure:

“When the state came in and did their testing [of the Courthouse air quality] on that Monday, they called us and said, ‘We’re doing our testing on Monday…’ and they asked us specific questions. They contacted us through their doctor — the physician who was doing all the questioning — and they questioned all of the staff and they questioned everybody who was sick, everybody who had been in the hospital, who had filed a workman’s comp claim. They questioned all of us about the symptoms…

“[The state physician] explained to us how carbon monoxide attached to your blood cells, over the time [of overexposure]. His basic comment to us was, ‘If you can imagine… it’s like death by a thousand cuts.’ That’s basically what he said. Over the course of time, by being exposed to that level.”

Clearly, the state-authorized physician was here talking about “death by a thousand small cuts.” We all know that one single cut, deep enough and in the right location — say, at the juggler vein — can be fatal. But a thousand tiny cuts can likewise result in death.

Or so they say.

During my time in Pagosa Springs, I’ve watched a thousand seemingly minor government decisions occur, and taken collectively, those individual decisions have, to some degree, defined our community.

Meanwhile, we’ve also seen more dramatic decisions that have changed — or threatened to change — Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County forever. Some of the major policy and legislative decisions that come to mind include the Town’s approval of the Walmart building permit back in 2012… the decision by the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District to incur a $9 million debt for the purchase of 660 acres in the Dry Gulch valley, in hopes of building what they later advertised as a $357 million water reservoir… the agreement between the Town and County to share the community sales tax revenues in a 50/50 split…

…and one of the more momentous decisions, the County’s approval of the 21-square-mile Fairfield Pagosa subdivision, later to change its name to Pagosa Lakes… and to eventually grow into the County’s population center, replacing the much smaller town of Pagosa Springs as the community’s hub.

More recently, in 2015, the Board of County Commissioners and the County Sheriff made a fateful decision to abandon the 25-year-old County Detention Center (following a roof leak) and to propose a completely new facility, priced at about $20 million. The voters rejected that plan last week by a narrow margin, leaving the Commissioners and Sheriff without any alternate plan for housing jail inmates locally.

In between these big decisions, and barely noticed, were a thousand local government choices that have helped define Pagosa Springs. I’d like to talk about some of those seemingly “unimportant” decisions. But first, let’s take a detour into the current workings of the federal government. Since we are talking about death… and cuts… and such things…

Colorado — like every state in the Union — elects two representatives to the U.S. Senate… and as 2017 draws to a close, our two Senators, Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet, have weighed in, with comments on a Republican-sponsored income tax overhaul under discussion in the nation’s capital.

As we might expect, the views do not coincide.

We’ll begin with Senator Gardner’s press release, dated November 9:

Washington, D.C.– Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) today released the below statement following the release of tax relief legislation in the Senate. This is a big step in bringing tax relief to Coloradans in the form of lower, simpler personal taxes and more competitive business taxes that will lead to more jobs and higher wages for Coloradans. Bipartisan hearings will take place in the coming weeks.

“For too long, Coloradans and Americans across the country have felt like they’ve been left behind,” said Gardner. “Congress has not passed major tax reform in over 30 years and I’m excited for the opportunity to finally bring tax relief to hardworking Coloradans. This is just the beginning of the Senate’s process and I look forward to working with my colleagues to improve this legislation in the days ahead and make sure it benefits Coloradans. Lower taxes will mean bigger paychecks and result in Coloradans keeping more of their hard earned dollars. It’s time for Washington to get out of the way and let Americans spend their money how they want, not how Washington dictates.”

No one can doubt that the Republican tax plan — if passed by Congress — will change America’s economic landscape. Bigger paychecks…?

Or a thousand tiny cuts?

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.