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Arapahoe County

Commissioners' new chairman looks ahead

Jeff Baker discusses county's finances, water and growth issues

Posted

Jeff Baker was recently appointed chairman of the Board of Arapahoe County Commissioners. Baker represents District 3, which includes eastern portions of Aurora and Centennial and stretches to the county's eastern edge.

Baker was elected to the board in 2016. Previously, he worked for Arapahoe County for 18 years, spending five years in human services and 13 in facilities maintenance.

Baker ducked into a conference room during a Colorado Counties Inc. meeting to talk to Colorado Community Media about what's ahead.

What is Arapahoe County doing right?

We're cultivating good, effective working relationships with the county's 13 cities and towns, and more than 15 unincorporated communities. We're working well with them. The days of lawsuits with Littleton and Aurora — I won't say never — but we don't have any going on.

We're seeing positive action on issues across the board, such as transportation, human services, law enforcement, the sheriff's relationship with police chiefs, and our new crime lab. We're a strong player in the region, especially as part of the Tri-County Health Department along with Adams and Douglas counties. We take pride in our relationships with city councils, mayors, and city staffs. Even when we did have lawsuits, around tax and criminal justice financing issues, our staffs continued to work well with each other — even elected officials. We work together to get the job done.

We're one of the eight counties that have not de-Bruced (voted to exempt ourselves from the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR). Our property taxes are subject to TABOR. We are gentlemen and ladies and we ask taxpayers how to spend their money.

I think we've got a great dynamic on the board of county commissioners. One of my duties as chairman is cutting down on our chitchat about what we did last weekend and our grandkids and back to the issues. We have civil dialogue. We disagree but we're never rude, we never denigrate anyone. We're very respectful of other opinions.

What challenges does Arapahoe County face this year?

Our challenges haven't changed a whole lot from 2017. We have deteriorating infrastructure. Our roads, bridges and buildings need work. The county has 33 buildings that we have to make sure are safe for employees, effective for citizens who use them, and energy efficient.

We're being asked to do more with the same amount of money. The property tax rates haven't gone up in 13 years. The mill levy has been adjusted to keep up with Gallagher Amendment. Property tax revenues have gone up and down, but the mill levy hasn't gone up, and that's probably a good thing. We've had watchdogs who keep us from increasing taxes except as a last resort.

We've had to deal with rising costs of asphalt, rebar, and other construction materials. Contractors are charging more, but we're not necessarily taking in an equivalent increase in revenue. You hear about the population increase, which is great because that's more people paying taxes. There's some discussion of whether property tax could increase, though I consider that to be a last resort. There are many tools we can use, such as borrowing money. Denver has had many projects where the citizens voted to increase taxes on themselves to pay for bonded roadway projects. That's amazing to me that people would do that, though I'm not sure Arapahoe County would do that. We'd have to get permission under TABOR.

We're continuing our journey toward becoming experts at our core missions, then considering which programs and processes may need some tough love. We need Weight Watchers for the budget so we cut back on taxpayer calories. We're always looking for ways to more efficiently use taxpayer dollars.

What are the board's plans for 2018?

We're going to have our leadership workshop at end of February or beginning of March, where nine departments, five elected offices, the district attorney and Tri-County Health participate in workshops to come up with best ideas for how best to deal with organizational issues and deteriorating infrastructure. Are we efficient? Do we have the right number of staff? Will technology allow us to do something cheaper or better?

What issues need more attention than they're getting?

Water availability. It's so important in Colorado. We have attorneys, engineers and consultants who specialize in nothing but water. It's so vital to development. Kudos to Aurora, Deer Trail, Adams County and Douglas County — they're doing water right.

The hardest part of developing is acquiring water rights. It's a health and safety issue, because people need water to wash and drink, and in my district, for cattle and livestock.

The other thing that's getting a lot of attention is the opioid epidemic and its cost to families and society as a whole. The cost to our social systems is overwhelming.

What is the board's approach to dealing with growth?

Growth must be well-planned with transparency. We're always seeking the input of residents and businesses that will be affected by growth. Responsible growth will assure everyone we've tried to address every contingency, but sometimes our crystal ball is out of service.

We need growth to pay its own way. It shouldn't add to the burden of hardworking folks who live in the area to pay for more than their fair share for impacts on roads, safety services, police, schools, fire protection or utilities.

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