Former Comm. Schaefer Reflects on Years of Service
Today is Presidents Day, a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents, past and present. Serving one’s country, state, county, or city takes dedication and a whole lot of tenacity. Just ask anyone who’s ever served.
At times, it can be a thankless job, with long hours. And there’s no pleasing all the people, all the time, which provides an opportunity to get sideways with folks – like the people you see in the grocery store, at church or at your kid’s school.
To that end, Leadville Today warmly thanks all those who have risen to the occasion of service. In addition, it seemed like a good time to share the question and answer interview conducted with former Lake County Commissioner Carl Schaefer as he wrapped up 8 years of service to the Leadville/Lake County community last month.
Leadville Today (LT): How long did you serve as commissioner?
Carl Schaefer (CS): I was elected in 2004 and served for two terms, the maximum number of terms that you can serve in Lake County. Schaefer served from 2004 to 2012 as Lake County Commissioner, District Three
LT: Do Commissioner Districts really matter in Lake County?
CS: Not so much in Lake County. I think that because we’re small, Districts aren’t as important. All of the commissioners that I served with looked at it in that vein. During his tenure, Schaefer served with Commissioners Mike Hickman, Ken Olsen, Mike Bordogna and Dolores Semsack.
LT: What was your most memorable moment as commissioner?
CS: The split of the Health and Human Services Departments (in late 2006, early 2007). Prior to that, there were some problems, because these departments had an off again, on again combined vision. Clearly as the work load for both of these department became more demanding, it became increasingly difficult for the staff to handle the work load. That was one of the best decisions that I was a party to during the course of my eight years. Because truthfully, once that happened, both of those departments flourished.
LT: What was the most challenging issue you faced as commissioner? How did you approach the issue and what was the eventual outcome?
CS: One of the more challenging issues that I faced as commissioner was the broken down communications between the CDPHE (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment), the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), the City of Leadville and Lake County. Note: while communications among these entities were already in a poor state when Schaefer initially entered office, they continued to unravel throughout his first term. However as Schaefer entered his second term as commissioner, the groups were on their way to establishing some mediated meetings that would help bring all sides together. It was at a time when we felt that the trust agreement that had been established through the Kids First Program was just being squandered and that things were going on that really were not benefitting the youth and health of our community. The money was just being blown on cosmetic issues. Note: Ah yes, remember the “lawnees?” Fortunately Schaefer’s BOCC team at the time was able to turn things around and the Kids First Program evolved into the Blood Lead Program, Phase II. That change eliminated the wholesale remediation of properties and homes and other things that really weren’t associated with blood lead problems. The present-day program is geared toward education and healthy lifestyles, which will enable that trust fund to last a whole lot longer and enable the community to utilize the benefits of that money for health-related issues for a lot longer than if we had stayed on that same course. Schaefer relayed that the science was questionable and the tactics were less than admirable. The science wasn’t consistent across the nation. We were being treated differently. Through those facilitated meetings, we did gain some momentum; we did start to make traction and were able to finally start de-listing some of these operable units. Five out of eleven units were eliminated during Schaefer’s terms. The big one, of course, was OU9, more commonly known as the City of Leadville. In fact, Schaefer credits a regime change at the EPA for really moving things off the pause point. We’re at a point now, where it’s about the health of the community. I think that de-listing (the other units) is going to be an arduous process that is going to take FOREVER because it doesn’t seem to be a big deal for the EPA, whose resources and staff have experienced a tightening of the belt.
LT: Is being a designated Superfund site a deterrent for people considering a move to Lake County?
CS: I think that there is still a stigma in regards to that. More young families are better informed about possible health hazards in the communities they are considering to raise their kids in.
LT: What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment as commissioner?
CS: I don’t like to take credit individually for things – it’s a collective effort. But the 1041 regulations were a big accomplishment. These regulations were adopted by the county partially in response to the City of Aurora buying the Hayden property and discussing building a huge dam in that valley. The 1041 regulations gives the county authority over just what type of huge utilities and infrastructure can be built in Lake County.The Hayden property owned by Aurora has been considered to be the future site of a huge dam project. The 1041 regulations which were adopted during Schaefer’s tenure, give the county authority over just what type of huge utilities and infrastructure projects can be built in Lake County.
Another project that was completed during Schaefer’s tenure concerned the Leadville/Lake County Airport. In 2009, the airport transitioned from a fixed base operator to the county payroll. That change lead to major improvements with only more to come.
Schaefer’s last big project as commissioner – although he did not get to see its completion – was creating a contaminated soil landfill. When I came in as a county commissioner, that was still something that was being talked about. It was something that should have happened with the EPA when they first established Leadville as a Superfund site. We went through all that remediation with the EPA and stockpiled that contaminated dirt all over the place. But we finally have a contaminated soil landfill and it will be put to use. For those who may not be familiar with this project, it began construction last summer, up off East 5th Street, east of the Mineral Belt Trail. It was determined that this was the best place to put all the contaminated soil. But in order to do that, you can’t just go dig a hole in the ground, stick it there and call it good. It has to be lined. It has to have controlled drainage; it has to have monitoring wells. It is a project anticipated to exceed the $1 million benchmark – with 70% of the project’s budget coming from the EPA, and the other 30% from The Asarco Trust.
LT: What is the biggest asset about being a commissioner?
CS: Getting to know your community. While Schafer is a native, so many people have moved into the community that I have had an opportunity to meet and get their different points of view. Being a commissioner was also a real education, civically.
LT: And the biggest deficit about serving?
CS: It’s easy to get yourself into trouble in the position, rub people the wrong way. You can’t please everybody. But you can’t let it bug you – every day was a challenge that way, by nature. Schaefer also added that you don’t get very many thank yous.
LT: What were the hardest times during your tenure?
CS: Schaefer touched on having to deal with a tight county budget during his 8 years, but added that those county employees that stayed through those lean times should take pride in the work they continued to do for a stagnant wage and benefits. And then there was the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel (LMDT) which Schaefer shared, created lots of hurt feelings and that, in hindsight, he would have done some things differently. Although I can’t dispute the results, even if the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) still hasn’t taken responsibility for the tunnel.
LT: What do you think is the public’s biggest misconception about serving as commissioner?
CS: They don’t understand that a commissioner can only do so much – we have no authority over the City of Leadville, and the Sheriff, Assessor and Treasurer are all elected offices so, you do your best to make those relationships work.
LT: What is the salary for a Lake County Commissioner?
CS: Most people may not know that it is the state legislature that sets salaries for counties. Schaefer shared that when he first started in 2004, his salary was $39,500 annually. Then in 2007 the legislature adjusted to the current wage of $49,700. Schaefer added that for the responsibilities of the office, it’s not enough.
LT: What are your future plans?
CS: They’re in the air – I am looking for work here in Leadville.
LT: Anything else you want to add about your time served as a Lake County Commissioner?
CS: One of the things I enjoyed the most were the people – the people that I worked with, the people that I came into contact with.
So thanks to Carl Schaefer for his years of service to Lake County! And best of luck with your future plans!