The Next Bad Thing

Creeping traffic. Strained schools. Dwindling water. Commuters are flocking to Elbert County for a little bit of country, but there isn't much country left.

When epic snows like last spring's blizzard do occur, the clamor for snowplows can get ugly. As a county commissioner, Dunn spent more time than he wants to calculate trying to explain to irate citizens that, on the high plains, plows often have to wait until the wind subsides before clearing the roads.

"The first thing they do is buy a four-wheel drive," he says. "Then it snows, and they've got to get to work, so they get up and leave early, before we can get the roads plowed out. They get that goddamn four-wheel drive stuck in the road and leave it there and walk back. I don't know how many times we've hit their vehicles with a snowplow and knocked 'em clear in their yards."

Other critical county services have also struggled to keep pace. Last fall's fatal mauling of a woman by three pit bulls owned by an Elbert County couple drew widespread media scrutiny of short staffing in the sheriff's office and its antiquated 911 system. The only sheriff's deputy on patrol that morning was tied up with another call when the first report of the dog attack came in; it took other officers more than an hour to receive the call for assistance from the 911 dispatcher and respond to the scene.

Mark Manger
John Dunn has weathered forty years of growth in 
Elbert County.
Mark Manger
John Dunn has weathered forty years of growth in Elbert County.

Just days earlier, Sheriff William Frangis, who was short three deputies because of a hiring freeze, had delivered a stern letter to the county commissioners, complaining that lack of funding had left his officers without backup, "depending on an obsolete and ineffective 911 communication system.... Inaction is a deliberate indifference to the safety of my employees and the citizens of Elbert County."

The pit-bull incident is symptomatic of the way his rural law-enforcement office is being overwhelmed by the county's growth, Frangis says. The amount budgeted for his agency's salaries is actually $55,000 less than it was two years ago, even though the caseload keeps rising. Domestic-violence calls are up. So are burglaries, drunk driving, sexual assaults on children -- just about every category of social malfunction.

"It's a mess," the sheriff says. "We're in the position Douglas County was in twenty years ago. Once they hit a population of 25,000, they knew they had to not only catch up, but start planning for the future."

Frangis says the newcomers have "huge expectations" of his agency -- especially the ones who leave their homes empty during the day, prime targets for thieves and vandals, while commuting back and forth to the metroplex to pay the mortgage. "They're buying new homes in the $300,000-to-$500,000 range," he says. "They're from the metro area, and they're used to a certain level of service. I refer to them as my high-maintenance residents. They expect immediate response, and they expect a patrol car to drive through the subdivision once a day. I don't have anybody to do that."

The sheriff isn't the only one feeling squeezed by the boom. The court docket is overloaded, resulting in longer and longer waits for civil cases, since criminal matters take priority. County officials say they've fallen years behind in road building and maintenance. Other offices, including that of the county assessor and the clerk, are also getting crunched. But it's the 911 problem that seems to have captured public outrage, highlighting the peculiar hazards of life in the country.

Frangis has his critics among the county commissioners, who have remained largely unmoved by his urgent requests for more funding. ("The sheriff has big ideas," says Metli.) Through federal grants and fees accumulated from phone service, the county has the funds to build a modern 911 dispatch center but no budget for the new hires required to staff it. Frangis is optimistic that the shortfall can be made up with a proposed sales tax, but for now the emergency response time is still not up to suburban standards.

"It's a crapshoot," Frangis says. "It depends on where the officer is and where the call originates. If the officer is forty miles away, it's going to be a while before he gets there."

Five years ago, a team of researchers from what was then called the Denver Museum of Natural History embarked on a historic research project at the Elbert County Fairgrounds in Kiowa. While a group of elementary-school students watched from the bleachers, chanting "Drill! Drill! Drill!," a coring rig explored the secrets hidden nearly half a mile beneath the ground.

The drilling continued around the clock for weeks, stopping only for equipment repairs and other adjustments. After five weeks, it reached its target depth of 2,256 feet -- deep enough for extensive study of the formations that make up the bedrock aquifers at the center of the Denver Basin, the source of much of the water used in Elbert and several adjoining counties.

A collaboration among museum researchers and an array of federal, regional, state and county agencies, the Denver Basin Research Project had multiple objectives. One was to learn more about the geologic history of the region by obtaining core samples. The data buried in the rocks would shed additional light on what the place was like 50 million to 70 million years ago -- a time when the sea retreated, the Front Range rose, and tropical rainforests spread across what is now prairie.

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