From budgetary concerns to housing needs, Arapahoe County Commissioner Jessica Campbell-Swanson covered a breadth of topics during her May 17 town hall at Koelbel Library in Centennial.
Arapahoe County is split into five districts, each represented by a county commissioner. Campbell-Swanson was elected in November to represent District 2, which includes parts of Centennial, Greenwood Village, Aurora and unincorporated Arapahoe County.
“This is my first town hall, so thanks for being here,” she told attendees. “It’s been an incredibly crazy, wild, busy four months. And it’s been really amazing to learn as much as I can, as quickly as possible.”
In a lot of ways, the commissioners act as CEOs and policy makers of the county, she said.
“We’re your city council for unincorporated areas but … we direct everything that happens in terms of strategic and the policy, vision and the goals,” Campbell-Swanson said.
“What makes a really great commissioner is being well-read, studied up on what’s happening and being present,” she added. “I sit and focus and try to really be present with the information that I'm receiving so I’m asking important questions — because, largely, we are decision makers.”
Among the many topics Campbell-Swanson covered during the two-hour event were two pressing needs in the county: revenue and access to housing.
The need for revenue
One of the top priorities for the county commissioners is addressing the budget, specifically the need for revenue.
Campbell-Swanson said the county is looking at a roughly $3 million deficit for 2024.
“When I first started even thinking about running for office, I started hearing about how tight the Arapahoe County budget was. And … how we’ve been making magic happen for a very long time and squeezing, you know, $1.50 out of every dollar,” she said.
The first-year commissioner said the county has an almost $500 million budget, half of which is from federal and state grants and the other half is from property taxes.
“People don’t realize that the bulk of those property taxes that are being collected are actually going to special districts and school districts,” she said. “We actually only get about $430 per home.”
A strain on the budget is the impact of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, she said.
TABOR generally limits the amount of revenue governments in Colorado can retain and spend, and it requires excess revenue to be refunded to taxpayers, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.
To avoid this revenue cap, 51 out of the 64 counties in Colorado have “debruced,” meaning they have eliminated the government spending limit and allow the government to retain and spend all of the revenue it collects under existing tax rates, according to The Bell Policy Center.
“We are one of 13 counties … in the state that have not ‘debruced,’” Campbell-Swanson said.
She noted the county also has not passed a new sales tax for 20 years.
“And yet, during that time, we have grown exponentially,” she said. “Demands and needs are high.”
Arapahoe County is currently home to about 655,000 people. The population is projected to increase to roughly 800,000 people by 2030, she said, explaining that a goal for the county is to ensure it is growing sustainably.
“We are unable to keep up with our aging — our infrastructure needs,” she said, adding that a lot of roads in the county need work done on them.
The county’s road and bridge projects get $6 million annually from the general fund in the budget, she said.
“On top of that 6 million, we need about another 12 to 13 million per year for the next 19 years to actually catch up,” she said.
The county is exploring a variety of options to increase revenue, such as potentially renting out county property, Campbell-Swanson explained.
“The other thing is we’re exploring ballot measures,” she said. “We are exploring that for this fall.”
A decision on whether or not to ask ballot questions will be made around July or August, she said.
The county commissioners held a telephone town hall on May 18 to further discuss the funding challenges the county faces. Those interested in hearing that town hall can visit bit.ly/townhall0518.
Increasing access to affordable and attainable housing is a goal for the county commissioners, Campbell-Swanson said.
About 30% of Arapahoe County residents are cost burdened, meaning they are spending more than 30% of their gross income on housing and utilities, she said.
Roughly half of those people are severely cost burdened, meaning they are spending more than 50% of their income on housing, she said.
“We have some numbers that show people are spending up to 63% of their income on just having a place to live,” Campbell-Swanson said.
In some zip codes, there is no housing for sale or to rent that is affordable at the 80% area median income (AMI) level, or even up to 120% AMI in some cases, she said. According to Arapahoe County’s website, the median household income is $82,710.
“That is an incredible problem,” she said.
The county is in the process of lining up a vendor who will do a housing needs assessment for the county, she said. It is also updating its land-use code and looking at what grants and programs may be available to help increase access to housing.
“We are starting to entertain ideas and put things into motion to look at how we can be more aggressive and proactive as a county in standing up our own housing, and working, and partnering, and subsidizing housing,” she said.
Eviction prevention is an ongoing focus for the county, she said.
Arapahoe County used funding it got through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) toward programs such as eviction prevention, she said.
“As we look at ARPA dollars and … as some projects that we had maybe allocated dollars for are peeling off, we’re gonna continue to reallocate those dollars and can put some to eviction prevention,” Campbell-Swanson said.
“However, because there were ARPA dollars that funded a lot of our eviction prevention work, if we don’t figure out the increased revenue situation, then … that’s on the chopping block for things that we may not be able to do moving forward,” she added.
Campbell-Swanson said that in December 2022, Arapahoe County was No. 1 in evictions in the state.
“That is not an award you want to win,” she said.
The amount of people experiencing homelessness in Arapahoe County has been growing, Campbell-Swanson said.
“The number of our unhoused neighbors has doubled in the last two years,” she said.
The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s 2022-2023 State of Homelessness report said the Homeless Management Information System showed 27,860 people accessed services related to homelessness between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022.
According to the report, the top causes of people experiencing homelessness are related to economic barriers, evictions, or familial challenges such as relationship issues.
“It is much cheaper to keep someone housed than to get them housed and to heal after they’ve already become unhoused, right? ‘Cause there’s a real tight negative feedback loop once you become unhoused,” Campbell-Swanson said.
Arapahoe County has an internal task force that will bring recommendations to the board, which will then decide what it wants its policies to be, she said.
“I will be very honest. For myself, I believe … housing-first policies are what work best, with wraparound services and a continuum of care that address the root causes, as well as looking at the economic reasons in terms of wages, training and access to housing,” she said.
Based on her studies and experience, Campbell-Swanson said she thinks camping bans and sweeps do not work.
“I believe that they are a massive waste of government funds,” she said. “I don’t think just moving people around and throwing their stuff out is an efficient use of the small dollars that we have, because there’s no end to that, at a certain point.”
“But we’ll see what really makes sense there,” she added. “That is me, as Commissioner District 2 — not county policy yet. So, we’ll see where we land as a board.”
Those interested in viewing Campbell-Swanson’s full town hall can visit bit.ly/17townhall.