When Jim Bensberg began his first term in 2003, the El Paso County Board of Commissioners wasn't very popular with the public.
"The swirling controversy of the day," he says eight years later, was that the previous board had voted 4-1 to build an addition to the jail and courthouse. To accommodate the expansions, according to Colorado Springs city code, the county also had to build a new parking garage. The problem wasn't that the additions were unneeded, Bensberg says, but that locals had just voted against a bond issue to finance the jail expansion.
Constituents were furious, he recalls. Regardless of whether the expansions were needed, it was clear the board had acted without broad support. "At that time, two commissioners were perilously close to being recalled," he says, "but the recall effort failed over a lack of signatures.
"So that's the general tenor that I came into. And I think that they were rightly criticized at the time. It wasn't what they did, but how they did it."
That sounds similar to the situation that Bensberg's leaving on Jan. 11. The commissioners' decision to propose extended term limits for themselves and some other county officeholders — and the way they and County Attorney Bill Louis crafted the leading question on November's ballot — caused an outcry, and a likely re-visitation of the issue in November 2011.
Bensberg was the only commissioner to vote against putting the measure on the ballot. But his experience years ago might give his currently unpopular colleagues hope for tomorrow. There was a microscope focused on the board in 2003, Bensberg says, "but after we were able to get past that issue, I think that we were able to accomplish a lot of good things."
'Light speed' success
That's not to say being a commissioner during the economic crisis of the past three years has been easy. It hasn't, and Bensberg expects it to get even tougher.
"I think that this next board of commissioners is really going to struggle to take care of all the necessary government functions in the county that we are statutorily and constitutionally required to provide — and still balance the budget," he says. "I don't predict that they are going to come to the voters and ask for a tax increase, but it is going to be a challenge."
And that challenge, he says, is finding where to make cuts, with property tax revenue going downward.
"There were approximately 200 more employees working for us in 2007 than now, but when we saw the handwriting on the wall, we cut back drastically," Bensberg says. El Paso County's population has increased by roughly 14 percent since 2002, but after those personnel cuts, county government has the same number of employees as eight years ago.
On the bright side, he points to the 2009 opening of a local office for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau, a job that took close coordination with U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, U.S. Sen.-turned-Interior-Secretary Ken Salazar and others to achieve. "So, in four and a half years, which is light speed for the federal government, we got it done," he says. "Now we have 14 new jobs on the federal payroll in El Paso County."
Another success was the board's work to streamline the county's application of the use tax, a 1 percent tax levied on material costs of new construction. In the past, collection of the tax was unfocused, scattershot; now, the county has a record of which contractor paid what and why.
Bensberg also singles out efforts to reuse 30 million car and truck tires either buried or stored on the county's southern edge at the Midway landfill. "Once the federal regulations are settled, and the state issues a permit, they will be able to chip up those tires into a fine powder and mix it with coal in the cement kilns in Pueblo. It burns much hotter and cleanly than coal."
But the most obvious success, he says, has been opening up county business to the public's eye, televising commissioners' meetings since 2006.
It's no secret Bensberg has his eyes set on the state Legislature. He already filed paperwork to run for District 16 in 2012 (current Rep. Larry Liston is term-limited) and plans to officially announce in January 2012. What Bensberg will do until then, he isn't ready to say: "I like to joke, 'Well, I am considering going into the property-management business with Doug Bruce,'" he says, alluding to his brash former colleague. "That always gets a laugh."
He is looking into employment options for the interim but isn't discussing them. He says he will continue working with a local nonprofit, the Career Building Academy, "which takes at-risk kids in public schools and keeps them enrolled in their high school while at the same time training them how to build homes."
Once the homes are completed, they will be sold on the open market. Profits go back into the nonprofit to fund the next year. The academy plans to build three homes this year, using sophomores and up from local school districts.
"When these kids graduate, not only will they have a high school diploma, but they'll have enough hours to apply for a license," Bensberg says. "It's a really great program, and I am happy to have had a hand in starting it up."