Commissioner District 2 candidates – Merrit Linke

Merrit Linke
Merrit Linke

Week 1, candidates were asked: Please introduce yourself to the community in 250 words or less and explain why you are running for this position. Candidate responses are unedited.

I am honored to have served as your commissioner for nearly 8 years. It has been interesting, challenging at times, but never without a solution that can be reached with some hard work and communication. I am a Grand County native and live on the same parcel of land that my Great grandfather homesteaded nearly 140 years ago. I have raised my family here, ran a business here, and have seen many changes, especially in the last 20 years. I have a varied and diverse background, from being a teacher and coach for 13 years to being a district sales rep for the livestock feed division of a multinational company. This background experience and the connections I’ve made as commissioner supports solutions oriented leadership, fiscal responsibility and objective evaluation of issues that characterizes my tenure as your commissioner. While I certainly have issues with career politicians, I believe there is a value to experience in leadership positions in terms of getting things done, finding solutions, and making sure that all voices are heard. I believe there is a lot of work to continue here in Grand County; managing growth, finding transportation and housing solutions, all while preserving our culture and way of life. I am asking for your support and your vote this November. Thank you and please reach out to me if you have any questions or concerns.

Week 2: Many people don’t understand the job of county commissioner. How do you see the job’s responsibilities and what are your qualifications for the office?  

The year before I took office, in 2012, I went to almost every single commissioner meeting and many of the other meetings that the sitting commissioners were involved in. My goal was to not only learn the issues and concerns, but to learn the process of how decisions were made, how things worked ,and what I could expect if I were to be elected. A couple of really important takeaways that I learned, 1. The job of commissioner is a lot different than it looks once you’re sitting on the other side of the table-there is so much more to it. 2. It is much more than showing up on a Tuesday for a once a week meeting.
Ultimately, at a high level, commissioners are responsible for only two things; land use and the stewardship of taxpayer money. The details are where the work comes in. What conditions must apply to a new subdivision? What do we want Grand County to look like in the future? To what level are we taking care of our county roads? What is the highest priority for taxpayer money to be spent on? What is the balance for these priorities? How can we effectively use citizen input for help in making these decisions?

From a legal standpoint, my qualifications for office are that I am at least 18 years old, have resided in the county for at least one year, am a registered voter in Grand County and an US citizen. From a best qualified for the job standpoint, I have a diverse, professional background, have served for nearly 8 years, have a record of finding solutions, listening, and being an objective voice of reason. Although I was gone for over a decade, I chose to come back to Grand County to raise my family, educate my kids here, operate a business, and be involved in the community. Thank you for your support and I’m asking for your vote. Thank you, Grand Gazette for providing this forum.

Week 3: Campaigns often promise change. What changes would you want to see in the next 4 years if elected?

I agree, campaigns often promise changes. Better lives, more money, more access to this or that, etc.etc. I’ve never been big on promises like this, but I will promise just three things:

  1. I will always evaluate objectively. I will consider all the facts available and make the best decision possible.
  2. I will always listen. I may not agree and I may remind you that “listening to” and “agreeing with” are not always the same thing, but I will always consider your point.
  3. I will treat everyone fair. I have no hidden agendas, owe no favors and have nothing to gain by making a decision one way or the other, just doing what is best for Grand County.

To answer the question, it’s important to realize that we are a board of three and one commissioner has no power to institute major changes. That being said, the changes I would like to see is a more streamlined approach to updating our county policies. Some are very dated and may not reflect current conditions and demographics. Secondly, although we have made great strides in providing county services in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, I think this is something we can always improve on. Finally, I would like to see a more diversified economy, one that is not so dependent on one sector so that we could even out and soften the blows that are created by the booms and busts that we’ve all experienced.

2. How would you prioritize the budget dollars and work with your fellow commissioners to make these a reality?

This is a very timely question as this is budget week and we hear from every single department and all the other elected officials. After working with the county manager and the finance department following our general direction, they all present their budgets in scheduled budget hearings this week. This is truly that part of our job where we get to “put our money where our mouth is.”
We don’t always agree, sometimes even compromise, but we can ask for changes, explanations or approve as is. Ultimately, this is where we fund the things we believe are important to quality of life, opportunity for success, and support for our businesses.
The three most important things that enable this to happen are well maintained roads, public safety/law enforcement, and well trained and equipped emergency medical services. There are many other essential services that are critical to the well-being of Grand County, but these three, in my mind are the highest priority.

Week 4: 1. How will you balance the needs and wants of county departments while working with a finite budget?

Approving and administering the budget is probably the single most important thing we as commissioners do. It is important to consider a couple of things when making decisions regarding budget. First, it is not Government money, it is taxpayer’s money that was earned by working people, building things, growing things or providing services, and should never be taken lightly. Secondly, this money is to be used for those services and programs that provide health and safety and support our businesses which in turn supports employees and their families.

In balancing the needs versus wants, it is important to keep the mission and purpose of county government in mind and most importantly keep the big picture in view. More specifically, the top three most important in terms of everyday funding are the Road and Bridge Dept., Law Enforcement, and EMS. There are many other departments that are essential and important but don’t require the same funding level as those three. Underlying all of these in terms of importance is water. As most know, Grand County has been involved in monitoring, negotiating for and advocating for mitigations of the impacts of trans-mountain diversions and downstream calls for decades. It is critically important to provide funding and support for programs, staff and resources that ensure the quality and quantity of water in Grand county.

2. What criteria will you prioritize needs and wants?

The criteria that we use is based on the needs, requirements and overall direction of an ever-changing economy, demographics, and our best projections of what the future might bring. In terms of departmental wants vs needs, working with the county manager, and in collaboration with the department heads, we look at all the line items with a business eye and make a judgement call as to its support for the mission. Just as your mechanic in town needs good tools, Road and Bridge needs good equipment just as EMS needs reliable vehicles.

3. If new resources were available, what one area of county services would you feel most need additional resources?

If additional resources were to magically appear with no strings attached, I would advocate in putting these funds to use that would provide long term benefits and potentially reduce a future cost. One example would be to improve aging infrastructure. I might consider paving some more high traffic, high maintenance roads, or put the money into some aging county buildings that re inefficient and are going to require major repairs at some point in the not so distant future.

4. Should any parts of the county budget be shielded from cuts? If so, which area?

Nothing is 100% shielded from any and all cuts. Recently, as COVID related projections were coming in, we asked for a 5% reduction in the operating budget across the board. In addition to that, we enacted a hiring freeze to account for the deficit being projected. All that enabled us to come in under the 2020 budget and put a small increase in the fund balance going into 2021. All that being said, no essential missions in terms of public safety, road maintenance or law enforcement were compromised. Even though difficult at times, all of the other county services were fully available and functioning. If deeper cuts would have had to be made, we would have had to have the conversation of the importance of entire departments to the mission as a whole. You can fund it, cripple it or kill it, and that’s the hard decision that sometimes has to be made.


Week 5: 1. Grand County has not updated its land use and zoning codes to deal effectively with current development pressures. Do you have a plan to accomplish this task?

I agree that some of the land use codes are out of date and need some revision. It is a huge process and can only be done in small pieces at a time. We are in the process of doing some of this now. Some simply need to be updated, but others need public input and careful analysis to make sure it fits today’s needs and applies to future development as best it can.

2. Should Grand County taxpayers continue to fund the Windy Gap bypass project in view of the fact this Colorado River issue was created by eastern slope water users?

First of all, this is a flawed question. Flaw number 1: It is not a bypass-it is a connectivity channel. It connects year-round; wet and dry years, the river below the dam to the river above the dam. Fish can swim up-fish can swim down. They can’t now. The river is essentially dead below the dam in terms of fish and the bugs and other species that fish eat. This project fixes that and still allows East Slope diversions to occur when appropriate. Flaw number 2; Grand County taxpayers are only paying for a fraction of this project, there is a multitude of partners with diverse interests, including Trout Unlimited, Northern Water and many others.

Recently, OLRT funds were approved as part of the contribution to get this project moving. I do agree that this problem was created by Front Range water providers, but it is important to note that under Colorado water Law, they do have the right to divert water for use on the Front Range. We, Grand County, must hold them accountable for the damages to our stream quality and fisheries and we can do this through partnerships such as this very project. Partnerships, collaboration, and cooperation, are what it takes to mitigate and fix
the impacts of diversions on our aquatic life and fisheries all the way to the headwaters of the Fraser and downstream to the confluence.

3. Is it the role of the Commissioners to help encourage development and building? If so, what measures can the county do to help development and building?

It is the role of the Commissioners to support ALL businesses and consistently apply appropriate land use codes to strike the balance between quality of life, family based culture, recreation, tourism, and development. We can help all businesses by streamlining the process, being consistent, and striving to provide excellent customer service through all departments.

4. When managing public agencies, is it better to have more employees at a modest wage or few employees at a wage high enough to attract quality applicants?

The answer to this question is neither. It is our role as Commissioners to ensure that the county is providing the most efficient, most cost effective, and the most prudent and fiscally responsible use of taxpayer dollars to provide the necessary services for the citizens and visitors of Grand County. Furthermore, it is always the highest priority to provide the benefits, work environment, job stability or appropriate pay to attract and retain the highest quality employees. Although we have more work to do, I believe we have made significant progress in my time as commissioner towards this goal.

Week 6: The final set of questions asked the candidates to explain why they were the best candidate and to recap.

Fortunately, negative campaigning doesn’t happen in Grand County and I am grateful for that. We all still live here, have friends and families here and must work with everyone. I truly believe that all candidates want what’s best for our community. In my experience, collaboration is the best mode of operation to accomplish the vision for Grand County.

Last summer, I worked with my opponent, Ms. Ganne, in her role as the executive director of the Grand County Historical Association for “History on Horseback.” That event followed the historical stage route over Cottonwood Pass from Eight Mile Creek to the museum at Hot Sulphur. Together, we organized a breakfast, pointed out all the historical landmarks along the route, and had a carriage and a surrey to carry additional people. All the local newspapers provided great coverage and we pulled off a very successful event. Because of this collaborative effort, we raised a significant amount of money, had a great time, and shared one part of the rich history all for a cause that we believe in.

That being said, I believe there are fundamental, philosophical differences between Ms. Ganne and myself. I believe there are many challenges coming up for Grand County not including the years of rebuilding and cleanup after last week’s fire event. I believe that my experience, and my connections at the state and federal level will help to facilitate and expedite this recovery process. I believe that the work I’ve done prior to and during this event has positive impacts for Grand County. For example, the work happening right now, on a Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) project is being finalized and reviewed as I write this. Another example is the Windy Gap Connectivity Project. It already has a huge amount of funding secured, and is a significant step in fixing the Fraser River and the Colorado River below Windy Gap. Just his week, I initiated conversations with both our senators regarding forest health, watershed management and funding to prevent devastating wildfires in the future.

My approach to economic development is dedicating attention to all aspects of an effective county government. What I mean by that,
is looking at the big picture and the interconnectivity of all of the services provided to our citizens. Without well-trained, well-equipped law enforcement, we wouldn’t have a healthy economy. Without a respected-across-the-state EMS, we wouldn’t have a healthy economy. Without well maintained roads and safe bridges, we wouldn’t have a healthy economy. Without a vigilant and dedicated Human Services Department we wouldn’t have a healthy economy. All these amenities and all the others not mentioned are taken into consideration when an entrepreneur or potential business is evaluating starting or growing their endeavors in in Grand County. We have a great Economic Development Department that has had a positive impact on our local businesses, entrepreneurs, and the overall bottom line. This doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to do-there is always room for improvement, and it is work I would like to continue and build our future on.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again-I’m no fan of career politicians and have no intentions of becoming one but there IS a value to experience. Knowing who to talk to and how to get things done must be balanced with a willingness to listen and
learn from new perspectives. I strive every day to do that. All this is why I am the most qualified candidate.
Thanks, Grand Gazette, for hosting this series of candidate questions.

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