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Tough year: County taxes paid for zoo trips; ARPA funds bought museum tickets.

El Paso County spent $45,522 on tickets for county employees to visit Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in the last several months, according to Springstaxpayers.com.

In addition, as the Indy previously reported, the county struck a deal to pay $500,000 to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum to give employees $12 tickets to the museum (normal price is $24.95) with their families and other guests for the next year, along with VIP treatment for certain county employees and county commissioners at museum events. (Commissioners voted in June to give the museum that money, though employees surveyed in May chose the zoo — with 452 of 746 votes — over the museum and a Switchbacks soccer game, Springstaxpayers.com reports.)

Springstaxpayers.com reports that according to records produced under a Colorado Open Records Act request, the county paid for three trips to the zoo by its employees that cost $15,174 each, for a total of $45,522. 

But the county withheld 31 emails containing conversations about the expenditures. More about that later.

Commission Chair Stan VanderWerf tells the Indy by phone the expense was well worth it to reward workers for a stressful year working in less than ideal circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s worth noting that most experts have said mask-wearing reduces the spread of the coronavirus and its variants, but commissioners earlier this month vowed never to impose a mask mandate. 

“Like in any large organization with a lot of people, you know, you work toward ensuring your workforce is happy to be working in the county,” VanderWerf says. “Like most public agencies, we do not pay them a comparable industry wage, so it’s important for us to take care of our employees. We think we get a great amount of value out of taking care of our employees and working on initiatives to retain this great team.”

He calls the zoo trips an “investment” and a “thank you to our employees for the difficult work they had to go through with coronavirus.”

He also noted that because the county has more than 2,800 employees, “it doesn’t take long to get to that $45,000 number.”

“This is about taking care of them,” he says. “Our feedback is they deeply appreciated having an opportunity to relax with other county employees in one of our local settings, to bring families with them, to enjoy a little time decompressing.

“You can imagine during the coronavirus the exceptionally difficult work we’ve had to do. The personal health risks. There was a lot of stress embedded in that. We think it is very reasonable to thank them and thank them in a concrete way,” he says.

VanderWerf tells the Indy he’s not aware of other specific recognition programs for which the county has forked over taxpayer money, but noted that departments, divisions or offices hold events on a smaller scale throughout the year, such as picnics.

“We allow our supervisors to work with their team, and this is all part of a general approach, right? to assure our team is happy,” he says. “We want to make sure they know we appreciate what they do for the citizens of El Paso County.”

But VanderWerf downplayed the zoo spending, saying such entertainment expenses are “not a regular program,” but rather “specific to the challenges we had last year” and this year. The pandemic closed some offices, requiring workers to work from home or submit to higher health risks via appearances around the county at COVID testing or vaccine sites.

As for the 31 emails withheld from Springstaxpayers.com, newly hired Administrator Bret Waters issued an affidavit, required under CORA when records are withheld, that said the emails “relating to executive-level decision making reflect information so candid or personal that public disclosure is likely to stifle honest and frank discussion within the government.”

Those included six that “reflect discussions among executive-level staff on ideas, and the available budget, for staff appreciation”; 12 that show “continued discussions” about “possible options for staff appreciation,” and 13 that include more discussions and price quotes from the zoo and methods of carrying out staff appreciation day at the zoo. 

Springstaxpayers.com said in its blog post, “Think about that... For goodness sake, we are talking about zoo days, not [Middle East] peace talks!”

VanderWerf tells the Indy, after checking further with administrative staff, that the county released 85 documents and withheld 31. That’s nearly 75 percent of the total number sought, he notes.

“Those items not released were appropriate not to be released under Colorado statute, using the deliberative process, and public agencies under the Colorado statute have authority to not release documents for a variety of different reasons,” he says, referring to a CORA provision that allow records to be withheld if they reflect elected officials’ deliberative process but not an actual decision.

“You can characterize it any way you want, but we complied with the Colorado statute, and this was our decision,” he says. “I would hope you would be willing to print in your article that we provided 85 pages of documents. And we did not provide 31 pages of documents.”

Another provision of CORA and court decisions allows for sensitive documents to have portions of them redacted before being released. Asked why segments of the 31 emails weren’t simply redacted and then released, VanderWerf says, “Releasing 85 documents and holding on to 31 is equivalent to that redactive process.”

VanderWerf further says, “You’ve got to understand, if we release all kinds of deliberative conversations in the county, and these are conversations that don’t necessarily result in an end state development of a policy, we end up stifling conversations and thinking in the county. That is highly damaging of any agency in serving its citizens. We stand by the affidavit.”

The zoo visits were funded with county tax money, while the museum donation came from the county’s $140 million allocation from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. 

Senior Reporter

Pam Zubeck is a graduate from Emporia State University. She worked at the Tulsa Tribune before coming to Colorado Springs, where she spent 16 years at the Gazette and in 2009 joined Colorado Publishing House.