EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. (KRDO) -- The COVID-19 pandemic, rising inflation and other economic factors led the Board of Commissioners this week to revise their strategic plan for county operations.
The plan normally is updated every five years but commissioners decided to add flexibility allowing them to change aspects of the plan annually, if needed.
"No one expected that we would have a global pandemic, inflation and a recession," said board chairman Stan VanderWerf. "This plan is going to help us immensely, to have that kind of flexibility to adjust our budgets, and to bend and flex based on community needs in a much quicker time frame."
The strategic plan has three goals: Keeping taxes low, retaining a high level of public services, and being more transparent and accountable to the public.
As part of meeting that goal, the county has started an assessment of road, stormwater infrastructure, facilities, vehicles and parks needs; that assessment is expected to be completed by the end of next year.
Bret Waters, county administrator, said that revising the strategic plan is a combination of the county being more proactive and responding to what citizens have asked for.
"If we have focused strategic goals, such as infrastructure -- the roads people drive on, the stormwater systems that drain runoff to prevent flooding, the parks that people use -- we can be laser-focused on making sure we're addressing those needs. That's why people should care about this, and why it's important."
The county has a head start on some of the proactive work: A road study completed in 2018 found that two-thirds of roads are in bad or worse condition; the county responded by allocating more money for road projects this year.
Waters said that the county is also working on creating online "dashboards" where people can keep track of the county's strategic plan goals, thereby making county officials more accountable and transparent in their actions.
Meeting those goals is a growing challenge as the county -- as most employers are -- struggles with a high number of job openings.
"At last count, we had around 640 vacancies," Waters said. "We used to have 30 to 40 applicants for an opening, now we have only three or four. Fortunately, we've been able to avoid affecting the most critical public services. But it's something we're going to have to prioritize."
Waters said that the county will have to re-evaluate how it pays its employees, and ensure that they're appreciated and valued.
"Most of the vacancies are in human services and public works," he explained. "They do tough work in those departments. I'm hoping we've reached the peak of vacancies and can start finding more people to fill those jobs."
County officials said that of its job openings, 89 are full-time and 162 are part-time, seasonal or temporary -- many of which may remain unfilled -- and the sheriff's office alone has 132 vacancies.
KRDO NewsChannel 13 reported that public works has struggled to fill openings since early last year, and recently started a regular newsletter -- The Roadway -- to keep citizens informed on hiring, road projects and other matters within the department.
Art Zuehlke, a county resident, said that he agrees with commissioners' values.
"But having said that, If the county is challenged to do what they want to do and (provide) what the citizens expect from their county government, then I'd be in favor of potentially raising the tax rates a little bit," he said. "As long as it's transparent and we can see where the money is going."
County officials also will assess what should or shouldn't be considered an essential service -- such as public safety -- and shift resources accordingly.
County officials said that El Paso Count has the lowest tax rate among ten Colorado counties of similar size, with an average cost of $306 per citizen (based on 2021 figures).