Although debate about the Oak Creek Police Department has grabbed attention in recent months, most of the candidates in Tuesday's election view the law enforcement battle as a short-term squabble that detracts from more lasting issues the town is facing: matters of infrastructure, budget shortfall and impending growth.
In Tuesday's municipal election, three candidates are vying for mayor and 10 are seeking a trustee seat on the Town Board.
Incumbent Mayor J. Elliott is being challenged by former mayor Gerry Greenwood and former town trustee Bill Paxton.
Incumbent trustees Steve "Spike" Beven, John Crawford and Chuck Wisecup all are seeking another term on the Town Board. They will be challenged by Larry "L.A." Anderson, David Ege, Bernard Gagne, Wendy Gustafson, Cal Martindale, Josh Voorhis and Richard Wisecup.
Among the 10 candidates for trustee, the top three finishers will serve four-year terms on the Town Board. The fourth-place finisher will serve for two years. Trustee Dave Fisher and Mayor Pro-Tem Angie Krall are not up for re-election this year, and Trustee Tom Bleuer is not seeking another term.
"We've got two pretty serious problems - that's the lack of money in the general fund and the unfunded mandates from the state," Elliott said.
"Unfortunately, we're going to have two choices," Chuck Wisecup said. "You either have to raise more money or cut services."
In many ways, Oak Creek already has been struggling to meet its infrastructure needs within its existing budget. Large-scale water and sewer programs loom in the near future, along with much-needed road projects.
"Oak Creek is constrained by their ability to raise money, and we're going to have to pick and choose projects," Greenwood said.
In October, the Town Board transferred $250,000 from its electric fund to the general fund in order to balance its budget in the wake of a $228,091 deficit.
"We're constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul," Ege said.
Oak Creek's public works department deserves a lot more attention than it's been given, Gagne said.
The town has recently struggled to fund B-licensed operators for both its water and sewer plants, as required by state statute.
Growth and development
"The face of Oak Creek is changing," Gagne said. "Young, energetic, educated professionals are residing in and around Oak Creek, and for the most part, they're here because of its proximity to Steamboat."
"Sierra View is great because it brought in more upper-income retirees," Martindale said. "The way we're set up, Oak Creek has always been a young person's town."
In the upcoming update of the town's Comprehensive Plan, residents need to identify the areas they're willing to annex and grow and lay out how big they want the town to be, Voorhis said.
The 1996 draft of the Comprehensive Plan called for the town growing to between 1,200 and 1,500 people, Greenwood said.
"I don't want a huge town - if I wanted to live in a huge town, I'd move. I kinda like Oak Creek the way it is," Elliott said. "I'd just hate to lose the small-town character."
"By growing and annexing, we're needing to add manpower to streets and sanitation, and right now that money isn't there," Ege said "If those annexations don't stand alone and pay for themselves, the rest of the town is going to suffer, and that's not going to sit well with the citizens of Oak Creek."
Candidates also spoke in favor of the town supporting incentives for the creation of affordable or attainable housing in Oak Creek, but stressed that Oak Creek should remain its own town and not become more of a suburb of Steamboat.
"I see a long-term issue with what's happening in Routt County. Our workers are being put upon by forces beyond their control. Our working poor are going to be pushed out of Oak Creek when more affluent people come in," Greenwood said. "I feel chagrined that the powers that be in Steamboat just think they can push the working class out of the way.
"It's not Oak Creek's responsibility to provide affordable housing for Steamboat," Greenwood continued. "The fact is, nobody's going to build something unless they can make a profit on it."
"If it's truly desirable and valuable from the development standpoint, there's incentives the town can offer to bring these projects in," Chuck Wisecup said. All building requirements, from road improvements to landscaping demands, drive up the cost of construction, he said.
"I'm not saying give it away, but there are things the town can do," Wisecup said.
Oak Creek PD
At the Town Board's March 13 meeting, Elliott proposed an ordinance that would have disbanded the town's police department in favor of contracting with the Routt County Sheriff's Office for law enforcement services. Elliott's proposal resulted in his public censure by Town Board members for his decision to direct the town attorney to draft the ordinance - a decision made without input from the Town Board, public discussion and without research into the cost and details of contracting with the Sheriff's Office.
Back-and-forth discussion about whether increased enforcement under the police department's relatively new staff is a blessing or curse to the town has dominated Oak Creek's political agenda in recent months.
"I am absolutely for our own police force," Gagne said. "How this is being handled by the present commission is perhaps less open and less accommodating to the public."
Enforcement issues aside, the Oak Creek Police Department also has drawn criticism for not requiring its officers to live in town.
"They need to have some stricter guidelines. They need to live in Oak Creek - it doesn't do us any good to have police that don't live here," Martindale said.
The next Town Board needs to get a "tighter rein" on its one-and-a-half officer police department, Martindale said.
"As far the police department goes, when I heard there was a movement to disband the police department, I do not believe that's for the Town Board to decide," Greenwood said. "It should be by referendum of eligible voters."