Despite its nine trustee candidates and one mayoral candidate, the March 10 Paonia candidate forum ran smoothly and provided the public with candidates' views on a variety of topics.
Moderated by Gretchen Nicholoff with the Delta County League of Women Voters, candidates responded to questions ranging from the need for a town manager to support of the arts, budgets, and the future of the North Fork Airport.
Candidates were in agreement that Paonia needs a town manager. "I don't see how you can run it without one," said Karen Budinger, whose background is in corporate finance and administration.
Bill Brunner, a local business owner who is often at odds with the board, said in the past it was a part-time position and included managing the public works department. "I think we could do well with a part-time manager," said Brunner.
Current mayor pro tem Charles Stewart, who is running unopposed for mayor, estimates that seven years without a manager cost the town $1 million and "has been disastrous." With 12 employees, several departments and a budget of $6 million, "the state and federal laws that we have to comply with are significant," said Stewart. "It's a no-brainer."
Responses to the question of how the board should interact with out-of-town residents included urging those residents to be more involved and keeping the town website more up to date and understanding that many out-of-town residents work and own businesses in town. Barry Pennell, a business owner, said he would like to see more "town hall-style meetings where people can debate the issues and express themselves more openly."
Jill Spears, who is self-employed, said she's heard grumblings about the lack of communication from the town. She suggested finding ways outside of bi-monthly meetings to interact with both in- and out-of-town members of the public.
Incumbent Eric Goold said the board tends to view out-of-town residents as non-voters. With water issues in particular, he understands anger from those who have to pay the town for water but don't have a vote on how it's managed.
Mary Bachran, who worked in the mental health industry and is active in the arts community, said the town needs to make a concerted effort to listen to concerns of out-of-town citizens. "And we can take it into consideration because we are not 'Paonia, et. al."
Brunner called the community "way bigger than our town boundaries ... Personally, I would give away free beer, if I could, to get people to come to the meetings."
"Well, that perked everybody up," said Nicholoff.
On the issue of legalizing cannabis, Brunner and Goold called it one of the most divisive issues the town has dealt with in recent years. Bachran said that with other towns successfully running businesses, "It's not an insurmountable task." Her late husband used medicinal cannabis while it was available in town. "... I blessed the day that I could walk downtown and get what he needed so that he could be comfortable, and I would like to see that again."
Candidates were in basic agreement that completing water infrastructure upgrades and paving of streets are the top budget priorities. Spears called the town's budget "tricky because there are so many needs and not a lot of money."
Fixing streets "is going to be expensive, and it's going to be time-consuming," said Bachran. "But in the end, I think we have to do this."
Brunner said he did an informal survey, "and everybody supports it." Budinger said that in the interim the town can make driving safer by keeping streets clear of debris and snow.
Asked about past work with budgets, all of the candidates stated some level of experience. "I bring a lot of experience to the table and to the town," said incumbent Ross King, who serves on the town finance committee. His 35 years in the public utilities sector included managing budgets with expenses in excess of $100 million annually, operating expense budgets upwards of a quarter of a billion dollars, and has budget experience with nonprofits.
Several candidates had little or no knowledge of the airport, of which the town is 75 percent owner. Those candidates believe the town should investigate ways the facility can bring revenues to the town.
In response to a question on the town's support of the arts, Bachran called the arts a vibrant and growing part of the community and an integral part of the economic solution. The annual Mountain Harvest Festival has grown exponentially over the years and brings new people to town.
Spears agreed, and Goold added that artists who do come to town provide the service industry with jobs.
Stewart said the town has done a good job in supporting local arts, but that the annual mine payroll has dropped from $106 million to about $30 million. "That is an unbelievable amount of money that has left this community," and generating new revenue streams doesn't have just one answer.
King said water must be the top priority. He said he can live without broadband Internet service, streets and yes, without meaning to offend anyone, the arts, "but I cannot live without water. We've got to get these water systems repaired and back in service."
William "Bill" Bear, the only candidate who is also a life-long Paonia-area resident, said the economy is probably the biggest challenge the town will face in the coming years. "I don't have an answer to that, other than we have to set the stage" for people to visit and want to invest in the community. He agrees with Brunner, who emphasized that existing businesses need support. "I'd like to see them all stay in business."