Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann was elected to the Board of County Commissioners by 71 votes. Courtesy: Ashley Stolzmann for Boulder County Commissioner / Facebook

When results began to trickle in on election night during Boulder County’s recent primary on June 28, only one race was closely contested by voters. The county commissioners’ District 3 seat came down to a razor-thin projected margin of victory decided by merely 68 votes, a small enough margin to trigger an automatic recount. 

Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann is now the official winner in her contest against Elaina Shively, director of the Center for Prevention and Restorative Justice at the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office. By the time election results were certified on Aug. 2, Stolzmann’s margin of victory increased to 71 votes. No Republican is running for the position.

In the wake of this electoral nail-biter, a question may have understandably surfaced on the minds of some Boulder County residents: What, exactly, does the Board of County Commissioners do — and why does it matter?

County commissioners, while among our most powerful local elected officials, are often overlooked, according to Eric Bergman, the policy director for Colorado Counties, Incorporated (CCI). The organization is a non-profit advocacy group that educates Coloradans about the role of their county governments. 

“I think many people just don’t really know what the county commissioners are responsible for doing,” Bergman said.

County commissioners decide what policies the county should follow to meet state and federal requirements, such as those governing the SNAP food assistance program and child protective services. They purchase plots of land for affordable housing development and are currently planning to build or acquire a minimum of 500 permanently affordable housing units through the Boulder County Housing Authority. The county also oversees watershed monitoring to stop the spread of bacteria like E. coli in water sources like Boulder Creek. Commissioners review land use by planning unincorporated parts of the county for development and they oversee the office that issues residential or commercial building permits, approving permits for additions and new construction. 

Commissioners also weigh in on some of the highest-stake issues facing residents. In June, the board introduced several ordinances that further regulated carrying or selling firearms in the county. Earlier this year, they tabled a vote on a resolution to move ahead with a plan to form a special tax district to boost funding for the City of Boulder’s libraries, complicating the long-sought plan to boost funding. 

They are also closely involved in the day-to-day operations of the county.  Boulder’s commissioners oversee departments including the County Attorney’s Office, Office of Financial Management, and the County Administrator, which manages several other offices not overseen directly by the commissioners. Unless the county department is led by an elected official, like the sheriff or county clerk, commissioners also have a hand in the hiring process for department heads. In total, the county has 2,300 full-time employees.

Crucially, they also decide how the county will spend its money across the 20 different departments and offices serving its 330,000 residents.

Three county commissioners serve as heads of the county government and decide how to spend its roughly $550 million budget. The Office of Financial Management, which is overseen by the commissioners, writes an annual budget which is then modified and adopted by the board. (To give a sense of the size: In October 2021, the Boulder City Council approved a $463 million 2022 budget.)

The commissioners are also responsible for allocating federal money given to the county. In June, the commissioners approved $37 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding that they spent on a variety of housing, economic and mental health assistance programs, including cash assistance for families with children and funding for mobile response teams to quickly assist residents with mental health crises.

While funding for the county’s endeavors comes from a variety of sources, the largest portion of Boulder County’s budget – 43% – is generated by property taxes. (In Boulder County, 27% of property taxes are dedicated to the county budget, while only 11% of property taxes go to cities.)

In 2022, the county’s budget comes from a wide variety of taxes, fees and other funding, including: 

  • $226 million in property taxes
  • $108 million in fees, permits and special use taxes
  • $80 million in sales and use taxes
  • $96 million in state and federal funding

“It’s like being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, basically, as far as the number of employees and the size of the budgets,” Bergman said of the county commissioners. “The irony is it’s almost like this hidden level of government. We are constantly having to educate people on what the counties do.”

This year, the county is spending just more than half its budget on a handful of areas. Approximately $158 million is earmarked for its general operations and administrative costs, and $114 million for public health, housing and community services.

Another $84 million is dedicated to sustainability efforts, like water and land management as well as parks and open space funding. The county has allotted $63 million to the sheriff’s office (which includes funding for the Boulder County Jail), $14 million to the district attorney’s office and $2 million to the coroner’s office. The remaining tens of millions of dollars are spread across a wide range of areas, including transportation, disaster recovery and construction. 

County commissioners serve four-year terms, and cannot run for more than two consecutive terms as outlined by the Colorado State Constitution. They are full-time positions, unlike Boulder’s city councilmembers, for instance. Boulder’s current commissioners are paid a baseline of $120,000 a year, a number set by state law.

Currently, Claire Levy serves as the District 1 commissioner, which includes the cities of Boulder, Nederland and much of the southwestern part of the county. Marta Loachamin is the commissioner for District 2, which includes the municipalities of Longmont and Lyons. Matt Jones, set to be replaced by Stolzmann in the fall, currently represents District 3, which includes the municipalities of Louisville, Lafayette and Superior.

Two commissioners run the same year as the presidential election, while the third is elected during the midterm election year. 

The Boulder County Justice Center at 1777 6th St. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

‘We do things that affect people directly.’

Among the biggest differences between city and county government is the scope of the work. The commission serves as both the legislative and executive branches of Boulder County. Commissioners make policy and administer government operations.

“Unlike a city or town which may have a mayor and council for policy direction and a city or town manager for day-to-day administration, the Board of County Commissioners has a larger role in the operations of Boulder County,” Gloria Handyside, public information officer for the county commissioners’ office, wrote in an email to Boulder Reporting Lab.

The commissioner’s office develops strategic priorities on issues they determine to be the most important to community members. The current priorities, set in 2019 to last through 2023, include affordable housing, climate change, equity and justice, land and water use, and financial transparency. Policies the commission is pursuing on this front include establishing a trust fund that will go towards creating and preserving affordable homes, updating existing county buildings to be more energy efficient and devoting resources to train county employees on equity issues.

Like municipalities, Boulder County is responsible for providing public services for residents that live outside of city limits. In Boulder County, more than 17,000 people live outside the limits of a city or town.

Boulder County maintains unincorporated roads, performs inspections on buildings that fall outside city limits and is responsible for enforcing laws and ordinances for the people who live in those areas, along with many other duties. 

Cities and counties also work closely together on issues like land use and roads, where their responsibilities may intertwine.

“There’s a great deal of coordination that has to happen in collaboration with our municipal partners to make sure [county projects work],” Bergman said.

Residents looking to learn more about Boulder’s county commissioners or engage with the process can attend commissioners’ meetings, which are held online and open to the public several times a week. Residents can also sign up for public comment at these meetings or attend town halls as they are announced throughout the year.

“We do things that affect people pretty directly,” Jones said. “They should be involved and should keep pushing us to do the right thing.” 

Henry Larson

I'm a summer 2022 reporting fellow at Boulder Reporting Lab. I'm editor-in-chief of the CU Independent, the University of Colorado Boulder’s digital student news outlet. My reporting has also appeared in CPR News and the Daily Camera.

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1 Comment

  1. I liked this comparison a lot…
    “It’s like being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, basically, as far as the number of employees and the size of the budgets,” Bergman said of the county commissioners. “The irony is it’s almost like this hidden level of government. We are constantly having to educate people on what the counties do.”

    I’m glad you’re doing this type of ‘public education’ reporting.

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