Nine of the 11 candidates for the Albany County Commission debated issues facing the county board during a forum hosted Thursday by the League of Women Voters of Laramie.
Two incumbents — Democrat Tim Chesnut and Republican Heber Richardson — are up for re-election in the fall. They face nine challengers: Clinton Swierczek, Pete Gosar, Thad Hoff, Jerry Kennedy, Klaus Halbsgut, Andrew Boheler, Tony Mendoza, Maura Hanning and David Thomason.
All of those candidates except Boheler and Thomason participated in the debate, which moderator Mike Massie boasted had the “largest crowd we’ve ever had.”
Attendees packed the room at the Albany County Public Library, where nearly all participating challengers expressed support for the Pilot Hill land purchase, for which commissioners need $10.5 million to buy 5,500 acres of land east of Laramie.
Only Hoff expressed opposition to the proposal, saying he’d “like to see the county a little farther out of the real estate business.”
Hoff suggested commissioners don’t have a sufficient plan for maintaining the fencing the land requires and expressed concern at “locking up this land for development for the next 50 years.”
Jerry Kennedy, a former commissioner, said while he can “support the idea” of the land purchase, he’s also concerned about the “high cost of maintenance.”
Other candidates were enthusiastic about Pilot Hill.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something big,” Gosar said.
Halbsgut said the area should be maintained for recreation and its “natural wildlife habitat” — so long as residents aren’t taxed for the project.
Hanning agreed the project would be “transformational” for tourism by providing new access to forest land. User fees could be an ideal way to fund maintenance, she said.
The purchase area stretches from city limits on its westernmost edge to the Medicine Bow National Forest in the east, providing a connection between Laramie and the forest. Sitting over the Casper Aquifer and home to a resident herd of elk, among other wildlife, the area is valuable to a number of varied stakeholders.
The Warren Livestock Company, owner of the purchase area, offered to sell the land to Albany County — as long as the land is purchased by the end of September. In October, the County Commission agreed to buy the land if the full amount was raised before the deadline.
Chesnut, who currently chairs the county board, said at Thursday’s forum it appears the State Land and Investments Board will help provide funding and the commissioners will also be able to raise private money for maintenance.
“It’s looking like it’s going to get done,” he said.
Chesnut vowed “no county funds will be used because there are no general funds to be used.”
Richardson said there are currently growing opportunities for land swaps that “could substantially reduce the cash involved in the transaction.”
He said the land purchase is the “least expensive way” to for the county to protect the land.
The amount of information commissioners provides to the public — and when that information is provided — was also a popular point of discussion at the debate.
Hoff said there needs to be “a little more information at a faster pace.”
Gosar complained that the most recent budget posted on the county’s website is for the 2016 fiscal year.
“Too bad it’s not 2016,” he said.
Gosar argued commissioners also need to livestream meetings, take input on social media and host meetings after typical business hours.
“You need to ask people to be part of the solution. They will,” he said.
Others suggested commission agendas and minutes need to be posted in a more timely manner.
Halbsgut said, if elected, he’d like to host “listening sessions in other parts of the county.”
After spending a year with a greatly reduced budget, both incumbents Chesnut and Richardson expressed concern at the ability for the county to raises revenues.
When he was first elected, Richardson said that as “a conservative Republican,” he “thought for sure I’d find some waste and messes.”
“I felt corrected,” he said. “People sometimes approach a job with a certain amount of ideology, and I learned.”
Richardson said that the quality of financial stewardship that county officials have is actually “amazing.” He said the county’s economy is “somewhat anemic” because the “most valuable property in the county is UW and they don’t pay sales or property tax.”
Gosar, Mendoza and Richardson all stressed the need to find ways to keep young people from leaving the county. Hanning said there needs to be a “full-throated lobbying effort at the Legislature” to ensure funding for education and other programs for children. The health of those programs, she said, is paramount to attracting young people to the region.
Swierczek urged caution that new businesses should be recruited to Albany County so long as they don’t “drive out smaller businesses that we have.”
Halbsgut said the county needs “tech savvy young kids” to promote tourism on the internet.
All candidates expressed support for the sixth cent specific purpose excise tax, which was most recently approved in 2010, raised $42 million and was spent on numerous projects, many of them water related. Voters are tasked with approving the tax again this fall. Most of the money would be used for infrastructure improvements.
Richardson said he doesn’t want the 6th penny tax to ever become permanent because he likes the “level of accountability” that comes with voter approval.
Hoff said the mineral-poor county has “no other way” to bring in enough revenue without the tax.