By Ruthanne Johnson
MONTE VISTA— Nearly 25 community members attended a Meet the Candidate event on June 12, hosted by the Monte Vista Chamber of Commerce at the information center.
“The meeting was to give Rio Grande Country residents the opportunity to meet their candidates and ask about issues that are important to the community,” says chamber member Linda Burnett.
Candidates running for District 2 county commissioner include Incumbent Karla Shriver, Monte Vista resident John Noffsker and former Monte Vista city council member Joe Schlabach. Candidates running for county sheriff are South Fork’s Police Chief Donald McDonald and Conejos County Undersheriff Christopher Crown. Other offices represented were unopposed candidates Stephen Hunzeker for county coroner, Cherilyn Rue for treasurer and Cindy Hill for county clerk and recorder. Elections are Tuesday, June 26.
Attendees were asked to write down questions for the candidates as they arrived, and Damien Arellano of Alamosa’s CIA-Leavitt Insurance moderated the question and answer portion of the event, giving each candidate three minutes introduction and for each question. Topics included everything from the county budget to drugs and property theft and the community’s economy.
Below is a rundown of the Rio Grande County candidates running for office and edited responses to some of those questions.
District 2 county commissioner candidates
Running for her third term as district 2 county commissioner, Karla Shriver has lived in the San Luis Valley for over 32 years. “I’ve been involved in civic business, conservation and the water community since the day I got here,” says Shriver, who is running partly because she feels the county office needs stability. “There are new officials both at the county and municipality levels and new employees in core staffing.”
Key initiatives Shriver wants to continue working on include the Summitville Project---a super-fund site the county acquired in the mid 1990s that Shriver has been working to develop for tourism and outdoor recreation. Other projects include value-added agriculture such as hemp and affordable housing for the community. “The hospitals, nursing homes and the South Fork community have real challenges in finding affordable housing for their workforces,” she says, “which is something we need to address.”
Joe Schlabach grew up on his family’s ranch in Ohio. He worked in a sawmill at just 14 years old before going into construction. From 2000 to 2011, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps and received a BS in business administration from Adams State University. It was there that he became politically active. “I realized there’s a lack of accountability across the nation,” says Schlabach. “I want to bring accountability to Rio Grande County, build relationships and trust and grow our community.” Schlabach also served on the Monte Vista City Council from 2015 to 2018. “During my tenure as councilman, I advocated in support of the police department, continued robust economic development and a balanced budget,” he says. “I have proven my dedication to serving the interests of the entire community.”
Joe Noffsker has long been part of the agricultural community. He’s a former Vietnam vet and airline pilot who loves being involved in the community wherever he lives, says Noffsker. “I was elected mayor of a small town and then later as executive director of an economic development district.” He has worked to promote tourism and on rails-to-trails projects.
Noffsker has lived in the San Luis Valley for 23 years, where he now serves as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. “I have seen a lot of changes over the years,” he says, “The economy here has been up and down, as you can see from all of our empty storefronts.” Noffsker’s vision for the community includes a concerted effort towards economic growth across all agencies and counties. “I see us working together, weaving a fabric, if you will, connecting both sides of the track.”
Christopher Crown is the current undersheriff for Conejos County and a third-generation SLV resident who worked in agriculture before graduating from the Law Enforcement Academy at Otero Junior College in La Junta. He’s married with three children, who attend college. He worked for the state’s county sheriff’s office for a few years before transferring to the Conejos County Sheriff. “I think I have the expertise and passion that Rio Grande County needs for this position,” says Crown. “I have 17 years of experience, numerous training hours and certificates, and I’m a stickler for detail and documentation.” Crown plans on hiring 18 officers if he gets elected, “so the county is fully staffed,” he says.
Donald G. McDonald
Donald McDonald is retired military who has been in law enforcement for more than 25 years. He’s been a fire captain and an Emergency Medical Technician. He’s taken FEMA, emergency management and incident command courses. “One of the big reasons I am running is that we need change,” says McDonald. “We need better communication between our citizens and officers. We need better professionalism. We need deputies who are trained and professional. If we can get the integrity, we can get the trust back.”
Stephen Hunzeker - Coroner
Stephen Hunzeker is the coroner for Rio Grande County. The coroner’s office, he says, purchased a new truck and equipment, yet stayed under budget by about $10,000. The first year of his term, Hunzeker and a deputy became certified as death investigators through the Colorado Coroner’s Office.
Cherilyn Rue - Treasurer
Cherilyn Rue has worked for Rio Grande County for 35 years, with 25 of those years serving as deputy treasurer. The treasurer’s audits are always top notch, says Rue.
Cindy Hill - County Clerk & Recorder
Cindy Hill is running for her third term. She is excited about a large grant her office just received to update their books and preserve the old ones.
Q & A
Q: How will you attract new business to Rio Grande County?
Shriver: I am working on industrial hemp, which is a food and fiber that can bring a lot of money into the Valley. Things like vehicle doors, helmets and concrete have hemp in them. Unlike marijuana, hemp has very low levels of THC. I am currently working with the state and federal legislatures to allow farmers to grow hemp for industrial use, which would mean removing industrial hemp from the list of controlled substances under federal law. I also support outdoor tourism. We are working with South Fork on their trail system and the Summitville Project is transforming a dead asset into a working asset.
Schlabach: The number one thing in basic economics is focusing on what you’ve got, and what we’ve got is agriculture and the outdoors. Value-added ag is the number one thing we have to look at. And we’ve also got to look at packaging before the crop leaves the Valley. That’s what Proximity Malt has been doing, and we need more of that. And there’s outdoor tourism. People are looking for places where they can enjoy the outdoors without the crowds. The trails down here are far less crowded or developed than in Denver. The third thing is to develop a work force, which means setting up training systems to help community members be marketable to the value-added ag industry.
Noffsker: I’ve seen a lot of failures and successes when it comes to developing tourism. It’s not a “build it and they will come” kind of thing. You have to have something else going on. I think the value-added ag is the most logical thing we can do, and we have to work as a community to change the national law to allow for that niche market of industrial hemp. But one of the things that disturbed me was that the Valley made national news for our crime and opioid problem. That doesn’t build a good reputation and it needs to be addressed because it’s barrier to economic development.
Q: How do you plan on spending the county’s money— tax reserves and conservation trust funds— differently than the current adminstration?
Noffsker: This year, the county is expecting a $1.5 million shortfall. One issue that came to light was the proposal for a vaulted outhouse that costs over $40,000. That comes out of the Conservation Trust Fund. That’s over 60 percent of that annual funds we’re allotted form CTF. So, I am not sure this was the best expenditure. I think we should have public involvement in deciding how to use that money, which would have been better spent in other areas. The county commissioners have to be diligent and good stewards of the county money.
Shriver: The vaulted bathroom to which John is referring is a necessity. It’s on the freeway in an area where we’ve encouraged activities up there. It would be unsafe and unhealthy for people heading up there if they don’t have a bathroom. There’s no way around it; public bathrooms are expensive. To defer the cost, we reached out to the U.S. Forest Service. We got grant funding from SLVREC and there’s another grant request in. If all goes as planned, the county will only spend about $8,700.
Q: How do you plan on staying within the sheriff’s budget?McDonald: I work on a line-item budget. I know where every dollar goes. You’ve got cover the needs first and the wants can come later. For example: salaries. I’ve got salaries for some $500,000 and have to break that down to questions like, do I have sergeants, do I have corporals, are the departments being paid, is our equipment up to standards? Pay, benefits and equipment are important. We have one vehicle we have in operation with 213,000 miles on it. But we’ve got good maintenance and its still being used. I am also all about transparency You can come in and ask to see my budget right now. I’ll lay it out for you.
Crown: I have a good working relationship with the Conejos County Commissioners and I assist in overseeing the sheriff’s annual budget, which is pretty limited. We often deal with things we can’t anticipate, like how many inmates we’re going to have. We’ve got to adjust and prepare for things like that. Otherwise, we’re going to go over budget. I have also been pretty successful with grants and training opportunities for the sheriff’s office that do not affect the annual budget. I haven’t been over budget---and I am pretty proud of that.
Q: There is concern about the training deputies need for certification, maintenance of vehicles and dangers that officers face in the field.
Noffsker: It’s no secret that the relationship between the county commissioner and sheriff’s office has been strained. There have been disputes about money, budgets, what have you. But law enforcement is supposed to have ongoing training and they also have other unique requirements. They face constant dangers. They have to try and diffuse domestic violence situations or sometimes even fights on the road. They need training in handling these types of situations, physically and mentally.
Karla Shriver: Yes, there have been some challenges with our sheriff’s department. But it’s a collaboration and communication issue, both ways. I deal with all of our offices and 99 percent of the time we have great collaboration. Our numbers show that the sheriff has had ample funds. He actually hasn’t even spent all of his budgeted funds. In Colorado statute, the Colorado commissioners are responsible for the budget. You want to allow your departments to collaborate. I have done that, and we have come to great resolutions.
Crown: Conejos County has a really low budget for ongoing training: driving, firearms, and other fields. I think it should be higher but I went ahead and reached out for funds from the training foundation. I got all my officers and deputies the training they needed to be in compliance with the state and it didn’t cost the county a dime. If elected, I would reach out and bring those funds to Rio Grande County. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be trainings that would cost money, but it would certainly help. Another thing I do is get my deputies involved in fields they’re interested in and have them become instructors in things like OC (pepper spray), radar, BBCT (Biosafety and Biosecurity Training) and weapons use. Once my officers are instructors, we train in-house---and that saves the county money.
McDonald: When I came to South Fork, they weren’t compliant with training. I got them compliant in six months and it didn’t cost any more than my budget, which is $1,500 a year. It included weapons handling. I also have one day a month training, when we get all of our tactical and weapons handling done.
Q: What are your plans to renovate and upgrade Ski Hi?
Noffsker: Ski Hi is an anchor of the community. It needs to be maintained and taken care of. There has been talk about removing the swimming pool portion, and I hope to see that go forward,
Shriver: The Ski Hi is a regional complex which services the whole San Luis Valley. It’s important. I am part of a subcommittee for the Ski Hi Park renovation and we’ve gathered over $200,000 that’s sitting in the bank right now. We’re going to match that with another grant, so things are about to happen. But City Manager Forest Neuerburg recently announced that the building is usable for the next couple of years. That will give us more time to raise money and make plans about whether we want to renovate or rebuild.
The SLV and Rio Grande County are among the poorest counties in the state. It’s speculated this is largely due to our dependency on agriculture and the lack of water. Do you agree with this and what is your plan to improvie the situation?
Noffsker: I do feel the dependency on ag is depressing our economy. I think it’s the most logical thing we can do is value-added agriculture. With traditional ag, the value isn’t as great. There’s the increasing cost of water and the money it costs to get those crops out of the valley. That song has been sung for many years. The other thing is attracting good clean tourist dollars and people who have skillsets.
Schlabach: It’s not good to have all of our eggs in one basket. We need to look at diversification. Part of that is value-added ag. The other piece is like what happened with Proximity Malt. They’re processing the barley right here and shipping it across the country. This is the kind of diversity we need in ag. The other piece is to get innovative about what kind of crops we’re growing here. Right now, alfalfa and potatoes are the big cash crops. But alfalfa takes the largest amount of water of any crop we grow here. We need a crop that doesn’t use as much water.
Q: Two improvements you would like to accomplish in the county?
Shriver: I would like to see progress on the drugs and property crimes front. The Commissioner’s Association has started a task force to address that issue. Our DA will be part of that committee and a grant was just submitted to help with opioid addiction. I worked on grants to get drug dogs for Monte Vista. We got the dogs and a commitment for five years of training for the dogs. It didn’t cost our local government anything because we got those funds from other resources. I also want to work on heritage and outdoor tourism, which has the potential to really benefit our community.
Noffsker: Our correction system is broken. As an example, say you have someone working for you who is on probation and they have domestic violence classes. And they also need urine analyses, which is in Alamosa. They might live in Monte Vista and not have a driver’s license, so it’s a problem because these things are scattered across the Valley. It’s hard for them to comply with the requirements and that needs to be addressed.
Schlabach: Number one is effective policing. We need to be working with the sheriff’s department. Online there is a community watch, which is increasing the number of eyes and ears on the lookout for criminals. I would continue to support the community and rural watches. The second piece is to provide rehabilitation opportunities for drug users. I talked with one county sheriff who said one of the biggest issues he faces is drug users cycling in and out of jail. Nothing is being done to help them and we need to break that cycle. The third piece is economic development. I was part of the Proximity Malt project. The city of Monte Vista helped them with a system for their malting plant to take care of the runoff. That fix will ultimately help them function year-round.