Roads, emergency communications dominate 'on the road' discussion

County commissioners meet in Bayfield

Unpaved high traffic county roads and spotty emergency communications dominated discussion with two La Plata County Commissioners Monday evening in Bayfield.

It was one of several "On the Road" meetings that they hold around the county each year.

Charles Butler, who lives off County Road 502, said that traffic on the unpaved 502 and 228 has increased to the point where they should be considered arterial routes that people use to go to Durango.

Commissioners Julie Westendorff and Gwen Lachelt, and Doyle Villers from the county road & bridge department, agreed there are several high traffic roads that warrant paving. The issue is money.

Butler disagreed. He said he has lived in several other rural areas where paved roads were taken for granted. Out of a $70 million budget in La Plata County, it's a matter of priorities, not lack of money, he asserted.

Magnesium chloride is a poor solution on unpaved roads, he said. It's hard on vehicles, it kills trees along the road, and after a rain the road is quickly full of potholes again, he said. He suggested overlaying with recycled asphalt.

Paving "would drastically increase the quality of life on those roads," Butler said. It's "the number one thing other than schools that affects quality of life."

Villers said the department's capital improvement budget has been declining for five years. The county has 440 miles of unpaved roads, with 40 to 60 miles of those qualifying by volume of traffic to be paved.

"Until we do something to address the revenue stream, it will be a slow go," Villers said. Road & Bridge has a $7 million budget for maintenance and separately $3 to $4 million for improvements, he said.

CR 228 is probably the highest on the list for paving, he said. He listed other roads including 509 and 510.

Villers said recycled asphalt is a good option, but the product isn't available here because no one is ripping up local paved roads.

Westendorff disagreed with Butler's assertion that it was a matter of priorities rather than money. "A lot of money goes to maintain what we have," she said. "There are a lot of county operations that are mandated by the state." She listed law enforcement as the highest cost item, and human services.

Butler wasn't satisfied.

Villers said road improvements are mainly funded with grants, but those require a local match, and the roads must be improved to state or federal standards. That raises the cost.

Westendorff said that at the current rate of spending, the road improvement fund balance will be depleted in a few years without another source of revenue.

Lachelt urged Butler to come make his case at the county's 2015 budget hearing in November.

Upper Pine Fire District representatives pressed their priority to fix spotty emergency communications that use the Grassy Mountain transmitter on the ridge north of Forest Lakes.

Upper Pine board member John Beebe called it "a matter of life and death. Last summer, there was a fire in a restaurant in Bayfield. The firefighters on the outside couldn't communicate with the firefighters on the inside because of (radio) communication issues. The Bayfield Marshal has dead spots on Mill Street."

The Grassy Mountain transmitter site is owned by the county, but it probably should be owned by the state, Beebe said. The transmitter was powered by solar panels, but they weren't adequate. La Plata Electric spent more than $500,000 on their own to run electric up there from the top of Forest Lakes. But the transmitter equipment runs on direct current and seriously needs to be updated. New alternating current equipment will cost around $160,000, he said.

And there's another problem, he said. Lightning strikes fry the equipment, meaning it's not properly grounded.

The issue affects multiple fire, law enforcement, and other public agencies, Beebe said, and they all will need to agree as part of getting money to fix the problems.

County Emergency Management Director Butch Knowlton agreed Grassy Mountain is "a very important transmitter site. Again, money is the issue. I've cut my budgets four years in a row so other people can have money. ... We have to figure out what needs to be done regarding equipment upgrades, a plan that we all can budget for."

Beebe said, "Put the power of the county commissioners behind it and go to DOLA," the State Department of Local Affairs which provides grant funding for projects. "Once we get it upgraded, we can probably turn it over to the state."

Upper Pine Chief Bruce Evans clarified that the state won't take it until that happens.

Knowlton said DOLA "won't fund all the money necessary in one shot for that site. We need to budget a little at a time to change out the equipment."

Beebe objected, "While all that's happening, we have firefighters and law enforcement that can't communicate. I can't over-state the urgency. ... We should be able to get first in line."

The fix needs to happen by the end of summer while workers are able to get up there, he said.

Knowlton said, "La Plata County is last in the statewide effort. Our system wasn't built out the way it should have been. It comes back to the state only being interested in corridor communications" along main highways. They've left other areas up to the counties, Knowlton said.

Other issues raised at the Monday meeting were a request to re-start work on a county comprehensive plan and the very high costs of fighting wildfires.

Evans advised that Upper Pine is working toward adopting parts of a building code for new construction in wildland- urban interface areas, things like requiring use of fire-resistant materials such as composite decking instead of wood.

"We can't continue to provide fire protection the way we do," Evans said. "These fires are into millions of dollars very quickly. We can't continue to raise mill levies for fire protection. We need to focus on the prevention side."