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Commissioner candidates differ on proposition 112

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Chances are, you’ve heard a lot about the upcoming midterm election on Tuesday, Nov. 6 (if you’re unsure whether you’re registered at your current address, you can check that status at www.vote.org). This week, in the first of a two-part series, we spoke with each of the contenders for the open Garfield County Commissioner seat.

Paula Stepp (D)

Paula Stepp, a first-time candidate, hinges much of her campaign message on her appreciation of nuance in issues. For instance, it would be easy to distinguish her from county commissioner incumbent Tom Jankovsky by their stances on Proposition 112 — she’s mixed; he opposes — but it’s not so simple, she maintained.

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Like her opponent, Stepp thought long and hard about the different implications of the ballot measure — she just came to a different conclusion.

“I’ve spent a lot of time on the western side of the county, and I understand the economic impact [of] our oil and gas income to the county,” she said. But she’s confident that, if the price of oil rebounds and climbs high enough to justify the investment, the industry will continue extraction within in new regulations.

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“At the same time, I have spent many hours talking to people who are really worried about our health and our environment and the impact that the oil and gas industry and fracking has on us not only today but into our future and our kids’ futures,” she said. “It’s a tough issue for me, and I have gone back and forth and talked to so many people.”

Regardless of her personal feelings on the matter, though, Stepp recognizes it’s ultimately the voters’ decision, and if elected as commissioner, she wants to have a plan for either outcome.

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“If it passes, I really believe we turn around and invest in resources and whatever we can do to find more viable alternatives for our county, in particular on the western side,” she said, expressing some frustration with what she sees as better-late-than-never initiatives, such as the county’s current broadband endeavor. “We should have done that when we were in the height of wealth: we had almost $133 million in reserve funds. Year by year, we’re taking $8-10 million out of this reserve fund that to me should have been invested in the future.”

In that regard, Stepp had some concrete ideas.

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“Sixty percent of the county is public lands: why should that be directed to one industry?” she noted. “I look at how people participate in public lands; I look at how welcoming our towns are to tourists. We have an amazing Rifle airport that is topnotch in what is going on business-wise. Grand Junction is trying to get their airport set up as a foreign-trade zone. That could overlap to our Rifle airport, so what does that do for us in terms of distribution centers? I see opportunity.”

One thing she sees as potentially stifling to economic opportunity in general? “Proposition 74,” she said (learn more at tinyurl.com/Amendment74). “I think this is a really important one that we should be standing up against, and the most important reason is it’s a constitutional change, so it leaves us very little room to move.”

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Tom Jankovsky (R)

Though a Republican, Jankovsky — who is running for his third term as a Garfield County Commissioner — doesn’t consider the position particularly along partisan lines.

“Because there’s 33,000 voters potentially in Garfield County, I think there needs to be a distinction between Republican and Democrat, because there are some philosophical distinctions,” he said. “But I’ve thought back over my career as a county commissioner… [and] you do try to follow your rules and regulations, and often those will give you the best decision, but it’s never about party politics.”

In fact, he sees a lot of the issues most relevant to his constituents’ lives as a matter or rural versus urban interests than Republican versus Democrat — what he calls “foundational issues.” Affordable healthcare — “I’m working with a bipartisan coalition of county commissioners to try to do whatever we can at the state level to try to improve healthcare” — attainable and affordable housing, meeting daycare needs and implementing a broadband system — “We are working with Pitkin County now on a wireless broadband system which will… get to at least 73 percent of residents immediately that don’t have broadband” — round out the much of that list.

Jankovsky describes himself as a fiscal conservative. Much of his philosophy as a commissioner is numbers-driven. “We do balance our budget every year. We’re debt free. We have one year of reserves,” he continued. That said, he has budgetary concerns. “Our reserves are still dropping about $10 million a year because we provide about $7 million in grants to municipalities, to nonprofits. Then we have capital projects of our own. As a county, because our property taxes have dropped [because of the decreased price of oil], we’re starting to see some stress.”

In trying to curtail that stress, Jankovsky and his fellow commissioners recently issued a resolution opposing Proposition 112, which asks voters to mandate a statewide minimum distance of 2,500 feet between new oil and gas development and occupied buildings on non-federal lands. The current restrictions require oil wells be at least 1,000 feet from high-occupancy structures like schools, hospitals and businesses, 500 feet from occupied buildings like houses and 350 feet from outdoor areas like parks and playgrounds.

Again, for Jankovsky, it’s about the numbers.

“In our county, 60 percent of the lands are public lands and 40 percent are private. There are 11,000 wells in our county. On the public lands, there are 1,000 wells, and on the private lands, there are 10,000 wells,” he said, citing easier permitting on private lands for the discrepancy. “We receive 50 percent of our property tax from the natural gas industry. It’s 50 percent of the library district’s property tax. It’s 50 percent of CMC’s property tax [in Garfield County]. CMC’s worried about Gallagher; they really should be taking a look at 112,” he said, noting that county property taxes from oil and gas account for about $54 million in annual revenues.

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