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County commissioners: just what is their job

The ongoing scandal involving El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa has made the El Paso County Board of County Commissioner meetings a popular source for Twitter posts, live video feeds and Internet armchair quarterbacking. The commissioners are the public face of the El Paso County government, but these five individuals control only a small portion of what county residents see as their local government.Counties in Colorado are considered an extension of the state government and only have the powers granted to them by the Constitution of the state of Colorado and any statutes the state Legislature passes. ìWe are political subdivisions of the state,î said Eric Bergman, policy and research supervisor for Colorado Counties Inc., a nonprofit association of counties throughout the state. ìLocal decision-making bodies that handle roads, social services and open space; instead of all happening from a distant, centralized system in Denver, makes a lot of sense.îThe Board of County Commissioners in each county has budget authority for their departments and offices. However, the commissioners cannot change line-item level disbursements in the offices run by separately elected officers, said Amy Lathen, vice chairwoman of the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners.ìItís all dictated by state law,î Lathen said. ìWe have authority over budget in its entirety, but the board does not have power over individual line items in the other elect-ed offices. Those elected officials who are overseeing those offices have autonomy over those budgets.îThe other elected officials with the same autonomy include the assessor, clerk and recorder, coroner, sheriff, surveyor treasurer, according to the County Government Snapshot, published by CCI. The district attorney covers multiple counties, so the counties in that court district share the budget set by the state, Lathen said.In addition to the overall county budget, the county commissioners have authority over land-use regulations and policies and procedures for county employees, except for sworn law enforcement officers in the sheriffís office. While the board does not have day-to-day control over separate departments such as El Paso County Public Health, the members of the Board of Health are appointed by the commissioners. Commissioners Lathen and Sallie Clark also serve on the Board of Health.The popular notion that the commissioners control every aspect of county government sometimes creates friction between the commissioners and their constituents, Lathen said. ìThe notion that we have oversight over other elected offices is a frustration and has been since I came into office,î Lathen said. ìIf someone has a grievance with the clerk and recorderís office and they call us, thatís frustrating for the caller. We donít have any authority over the constitutionally elected officers, and that has been a constant source of clarification.îSalaries for the commissioners and the other county-elected officials are set by the state Legislature. A statewide County Elected Officials Salary Commission appointed by the Colorado House and Senate recommends salaries based on the elected office and the population category of the county, according to House Local Government Committee documents. El Paso County is one of nine Category I counties, which the state mandates pay for its commissioners, treasurer, assessor, clerk and coroner at $87,300 per year. Category I sheriffs are paid $111,100 per year. Lincoln County to the east is a Category V county, which pays the commissioners $43,800 per year.ìWe tried to go to the ballot to have those salaries set locally, but our association was fairly divided on that,î Bergman said. ìVoting on your own salary was politically unpopular. It puts commissioners in an awkward position.îMuch of the rest of the county budget is also set by state law, Lathen said. ìOnly about 10 percent of the property tax someone pays comes to the county at all,î Lathen said. ìMost of it passes through to the school districts, metro districts and other entities. Of the about $260 million that actually comes to the county, there is much of it that is restricted by state and federal law. We only have discretion over about $110 million, and thatís where the funding for the elected officersí offices comes from.îThe commissioners donít have the authority to de-fund an elected officialís activities, as was suggested by some residents to force Maketa to resign, Lathen said. ìState law requires that we provide necessary funding to each officer to meet their constitutional required duties,î Lathen said. ìThey may argue that they need $50 million instead of $47 million and we have discretion there to look at the total amount of money available. But if we were not to fund an elected office adequately, they could sue the board.îTwo Colorado counties, Weld and Pitkin, have adopted home-rule charters, which offer small increases in local powers. ìWe donít have functional home rule the same way cities have,î Bergman said. ìWe can make small changes like salaries and appoint instead of elect some officials, unlike a city where the sky is the limit if a city goes home rule.î Lathen agreed that more local control could be a benefit, depending on the votersí views. ìConceivably, a home-rule county board could appoint the assessor, treasurer or even sheriff,î Lathen said. ìSome people would see that as a benefit, some people would see it as not a benefit.îCeremonial duties including proclamations and resolutions donít take much time or money but help the board recognize and celebrate activities in the community, Lathen said. ìThey are policy makers and are elected to have an opinion,î Bergman said. ìHighlighting and shining a spotlight on organizations is part of publicizing and acting on those views.îAn organizational chart of El Paso Countyís elected offices and their areas of authority can be found at http://elpasoco.com/OurGovernment/

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