Arapahoe County Commissioner Kathleen Conti, left, speaks at a forum June 21 at the South Metro Denver Chamber as fellow Commissioners Jeff Baker and Nancy Sharpe listen in.
BY PETER JONES
The simple-looking Align Arapahoe triangle has become a guiding document. Courtesy of Arapahoe County
The trials of change in a diverse 21st century county was conversation fodder last week when the Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners ostensibly addressed issues of economic development at the South Metro Denver Chamber in Centennial.
Arapahoe, Colorado’s first county, is also its most varied, stretching from the south inner suburbs to the rural eastern plains, with a mix of urban density and open space in between.
“It’s diverse ethnically. It’s diverse economically, and we each try to represent our districts the best way we can and then work together to look at the whole,” said Commissioner Nancy Jackson, D-Aurora, whose District 4 is among Arapahoe’s most assorted.
That work to bring the county together is not always easy, said District 5’s Bill Holen, D-Aurora.
“Sometimes the debate gets a little intense, but we always find a compromise,” he said. “… We work together on multiple projects where everybody pitches in.”
The eastern edge of the large county can be particularly resistant to county governance, according to Jeff Baker, R-Centennial, whose large District 3 stretches from the eastern end of that larger city into the smaller towns of Byers, Bennett and Deer Trail.
“I heard it more than once: ‘Mr. Baker, the best thing you can do is stay in Littleton and leave us the hell alone,’” the first-term commissioner recounted of his conversations with constituents. “‘We don’t need you. We don’t want our roads paved because then kids will come out here and race up and down on them and hit our chickens.’”
As commissioners make sense of it all, economic development and the resulting taxation are issues that cross district and municipal borders, often with conflicting interests—for example, higher-density development rearing its controversial head, just as the growing millennial workforce seeks housing in the landlocked suburbs.
The good news: The county’s unemployment rate is below the state average.
The bad news: Many of the gainfully employed cannot find a place to live.
“We’ve heard from business leaders, for example, that one of the issues in coming here is to find housing for their employees,” Jackson said. “… We’re talking about middle-class folks who are working, receiving a decent salary, or what we used to think was a decent salary.”
What’s more, much of the growing senior population has been unable to pay rising rents in a landlord’s market. The county helped to address that issue in its recent approval of a tax-subsidized affordable senior-housing development on Parker Road.
The Aurora contingent: Commissioners Bill Holen and Nancy Jackson. Photos by Peter Jones
“We were able to partner with them to use our tax-exempt status so they could build this,” said District 1’s Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton. “The land was donated by a church, so it was already exempt as far as property tax to the county. It certainly seemed to be a win-win for all parties.”
All of this is made possible by the county’s $350 million budget overseen by the five-member board. About half of the money is essentially spent before the county even gets it on state and federally mandated programs, but Board Chair Nancy Sharpe, R-Greenwood Village, stresses how much long-term planning and deliberation goes into managing the other half.
“The buck stops with us,” the District 2 commissioner said, speaking both literally and metaphorically. “We do set the budget. We approve the budget. … Keeping the county financially strong is a huge thing. … You have to think about where you’re going. … [and] what are the things we have to do, planning today for the future.”
Among the current considerations is whether the 18th Judicial District, the largest in Colorado, needs a new courthouse or jail to match the growing population, a decision that would require final approval by voters in four counties.
“It’s a $350 million endeavor. … These are very big decisions,” Sharpe said.
Another huge and expensive issue is the state of Arapahoe County’s roads.
“It’s more than just capacity,” Baker said. “It’s more than just congestion. It’s the quality.”
The state Constitution’s Gallagher Amendment and its effective reduction of residential property taxes have made financing such efforts a challenge, Conti said.
“You would think that with property values as high as they are right now that we would be flush with cash. Oh, not true,” she said. “… It’s almost what you would call a manmade recession.”
Certain priorities, such as the open-space program, have dedicated revenue streams, and most agree that the voter-approved open-space sales and use tax has made all the difference for a county dedicated to parks, trails, recreation and overall quality of life.
“That is the department that reminds you—other than a sign—that you have left Denver and are now in Arapahoe County,” Conti said.
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