February 4, 2014 Updated: February 4, 2014 at 7:20 pm
A decision has been made.
Contractors can now begin assessing hazard trees in county parks and along El Paso County roads in Black Forest after Commissioner Sallie Clark cast the deciding votes Tuesday to approve a pair of contracts related to last summer's disastrous fire.
"There has been a lot of public input on this," Clark said moments before Tuesday's votes. "Now we need to move forward on this and take care of our responsibilities."
The District 3 commissioner echoed comments she made at the Jan. 28 El Paso County Commission meeting when she had to leave to catch a flight and missed the initial votes. Her absence led to 2-2 deadlocks on each contract, one for True North Emergency Management to oversee the hazard tree removal and another for Ceres Environmental Services to do the labor.
True North is a company from Texas that county officials say has a lot of experience managing work done with Federal Emergency Management Agency money. Ceres is a national firm that won its bid after a Request For Proposal (RFP) was distributed in late 2013.
The True North contract will not exceed $147,000, and the pact with Ceres was set at a maximum of $1,198,572. Because the burned, blackened trees are a result of the Black Forest fire, which was declared a disaster by President Barack Obama in July 2013, FEMA will pay 75 percent of the cost, while the county will pick up the rest.
The commissioners have debated the tree removal contracts since the first RFP was distributed in November. The public had multiple chances to weigh in at county commission work sessions and at Black Forest Long-Term Recovery meetings.
Questions were raised concerning potentially elevated costs that might have been associated with federal assistance. And residents and officials argued - even as recently as Jan. 28 - about whether to include tree removal along county easements on private property.
Commissioners Darryl Glenn, Peggy Littleton and Amy Lathen each hoped to see estimates to have the work done without FEMA help. But county administrator Jeff Greene said waiting for the "apples-to-apples" comparison might lead to losing any chance of federal assistance. FEMA has set a July 26 deadline for the project to be completed.
Clark said, "There are a lot of different counties at the well looking for FEMA money to help with flood damage all over Colorado."
Glenn and Littleton cast the dissenting votes Jan. 28, while Lathen and Dennis Hisey voted to approve the contracts.
Clark said hazard tree removal is "a public safety concern" and chose to vote with Lathen and Hisey in fear of losing the FEMA money. She also approved the contracts because they require at least 80 percent of the work to be done by local contractors.
Clark said there have been a lot of "mixed messages" about entering private land and removing hazard trees. She and the county's budget officer, Nicola Sapp, indicated that an easement project could be done in the future.
"I think we can certainly look at the easement issue," Clark said. "But I think that's the second priority."