With El Paso County coming off a turbulent couple of years of fires, floods and the aftermath related to multiple disasters, county commissioner and board chairman Dennis Hisey hopes he and other county officials can play a little catch-up over the next several months.
The commissioner, who was elected in 2004 and is in his fifth stint as chairman, points to obvious issues such as disaster recovery and stormwater as hot topics in 2014 and beyond. The chairman also says budget concerns are and always will be at the forefront when focusing on disasters as well as everyday business in the county.
Hisey, a county resident for 30 years, shared his thoughts with The Gazette on the challenges facing his board. His responses were edited for length and style.
Gazette: What do you consider to be the major accomplishments by the Board of County Commissioners during your tenure?
Hisey: I've got a few in my district that made a difference to the folks down there. The quiet zone in the Security-Widefield area was huge. Getting Willow Springs ponds back open was really big. Gate 20 at Fort Carson, that was a united effort with PPACG.
We reduced our workforce by at least 10 percent. How we handled that and the fact that we came out of that with a higher credit rating tells me that outside agencies recognized that we are doing things correctly. Budget is probably our biggest responsibility here.
Our Citizens Service Center, there was a little controversy when we did it. We consolidated a lot of services. It meant that people who live a little farther from Colorado Springs had to drive farther to get to their services, but that has turned out to be very much the right decision.
The synergy of having all those people together has turned out to be one of our better decisions.
It's a one-stop shop for customers. They can do almost anything there. It was a significant benefit to the budget and dealt with a lot of infrastructure needs. We had older buildings or leased buildings.
Now the question is how do we get services to those citizens that have mobility issues down on South Academy or in Security-Widefield. We're discussing that now. We're looking at anything.
Gazette: What issues have given you the biggest headaches over the years?
Hisey: Land-use issues will fill the auditorium quicker than anything else, when you're threatening to do something to somebody's open space that they don't own. They still see it as their's, but they don't own it. They're controversial for weeks and months before and sometimes after.
There's always a lot of consternation over a big item like the Citizens Service Center.
You're making a decision that's going to affect the county for year's to come. There's always a bit of hand-wringing when you're going through the process. Is this the right thing? Is this the wrong thing? What are the alternatives?
Joint issues are always more complicated, when you're dealing with other governments."
Gazette: What things have given you the most joy in your time serving?
Hisey: It's always fun to solve problems. Sometimes it's a phone call from somebody that says, 'Can you get a sign up in front of my house to warn people that there's a school crossing that they can't see?' Some of them are very simple. Some of the problems are multimillion dollar problems. Solving problems at all levels, when you look back and say 'that really worked.'
Of course with a board of five, nobody does anything by themselves. You need help. One of the other commissioners will usually take up the cause and champion it for you.
Gazette: What were the major challenges for the BOCC in 2013?
Hisey: Obviously, the fire and that really needs to be broken down into at least two categories. One, the actual event itself. The sheriff was in charge of fighting the fire, we were dealing with a lot of people issues. All those people were evacuated and some didn't go home. So they literally had the clothes on their backs. And we were dealing with setting up the disaster resistance center and those needs.
Then there's the recovery. The recovery is a long-term, but it was really intense there for 90 days.
This is going to sound bad, because elected officials are always saying, 'I need more. I need more.' But the budget is coming back. And the voters approved the sheriff's initiative. There were a lot of budget requests that had been unfunded for several years. We wanted to hear them. We needed to know them. But there was no money.
Now that the money is beginning to come back, they were lining up and saying 'I want my share of that.' So when you take the sheriff out, that helped to spread the money out just a little bit among the other elected officials.
Gazette: What unique issues arose for the county from the Black Forest fire and the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire?
Hisey: Both of them consumed a lot of county resources. That can be everything from diesel for the trucks to the people running them. And also a lot of resources on finance, our people were working around the clock.
We had personal phone numbers for copier repair people. Because if we had to print maps at 3 o'clock in the morning and the copier went down, we needed to know how to get them in here.
A lot of people put in a lot of hours that they never got paid for. And that's the nature of the beast. They accepted the job and we're glad they were able to do that.
Those people were doing jobs before that happened. So that meant other areas had to slide. What we're running into now are deadlines. The normal work we'd be doing throughout the county got curtailed over this last year.
Gazette: What was the hardest thing to put on the back burner while dealing with fire issues?
Hisey: We're just now finding those, because we were so focused on taking care of the task at hand.
We're implementing a tracking system, a payroll system countywide. This county has survived by investing in IT infrastructure. That's how we service more citizens with fewer employees.
We were going to do this last summer. It hasn't been derailed, but we're now six months behind on it. We won't be going countywide until about a year from now.
And of course there's the road stuff. We'll have people calling in and saying, 'How come you didn't clean the ditches this year? Now the culverts are plugging up.' We didn't forget about them. We just didn't get to them.
Gazette: How are flood mitigation efforts going?
Hisey: We really think we're making some progress. We'll be at risk for at least 10 years and we will have floods for several of those. But we've been overall pretty pleased. The U.S. Forest Service is getting things done. The state DOT recognized some things and they're making progress. The county is doing what it can. We've marshaled a lot of resources toward that, but a lot of it, particularly on the Waldo side, was not on county property."
Gazette: Are there real flood concerns in the Black Forest fire area?
Hisey: There are. But they will never really be the people impacts that there can be in Waldo. There are some roads that we may find ourselves rebuilding several times.
Gazette: What are the top concerns for the county moving forward?
Hisey: We had been working on stormwater for years. And that kind of got ratcheted up with the fire and floods. It was really kind of reaching a peak even before the floods. Stormwater became even a higher priority. I expect us to come up with a stormwater solution sometime in '14 and of course that will carry into '15. When I say us, there's a task force working on it, so that's not necessarily the commissioners.
The City for Champions is another one that's going to take a fair amount of our time. I don't know how that's going to shake out yet.
Budget is always an issue, even with revenues coming back. The things we didn't take care of for several years when revenues were down, now we have to make decisions and prioritize.
Gazette: In what areas do you see the county growing the most in the future?
Hisey: As far as where people are living, the north part of the county and the east part of the county are hotspots. Those districts tend to grow faster than the other districts.
Businesses seem to like to locate on the north end, particularly if they are in need of direct flights, because they can get to DIA fairly quickly. We do have some empty facilities on the south end that we've been working with the (Colorado Springs Regional) Business Alliance to try to fill. That would be quite a boost for the city of Fountain and the areas in the far south.
I want to see more jobs here. I want to see more businesses here. If I knew the key to doing that, I'd be running the economic development side of this county. A good business climate is what the elected officials have to focus on. We'll never have big incentives in this state to throw at companies that move in. Some states do that. There are some things we can do locally, but very few. So we just have to make the regulatory process as easy as possible.
Gazette: Is there one important area that the commissioners are dealing with that hasn't received a lot of attention?
Hisey: So much of what we do is really keeping the county running. I tell groups when I go out and speak to them, 'If you don't know much about us, that's probably a good thing. That means we're doing our job.' You shouldn't have to be thinking about your local government all the time. You should be able to work and take care of your family, and trust us to handle the basics.