Printer Friendly

Alamosa: a successful approach to intergovernmental relations.

The relationship between a municipality and its county can be intricate, and the process of turning around a relationship mired in distrust can be difficult. But it can be turned around. The City and County of Alamosa have shown that it can be done. No longer threatening each other with lawsuits, they are now working together on several major projects. Here is how they worked to improve their relationship.

Relations between the City of Alamosa and Alamosa County sank to the lowest level in the mid-80s for the same reasons relations between many cities and counties deteriorate. These reasons included mistrust, an "us vs. them" attitude and a misunderstanding of the legal authority and responsibility of each other's level of local government.

The problems reached an apex in 1987 after the completion of an integration study. The study recommended consolidating the activities of the city and county by creating one government. While this study and its recommendations were intended to break down barriers and create the means to merge the functions of these rural Colorado city and county governments, in reality, the study drove a spike between the two governments.

In 1988, when both the city and the county hired new managers, the problem had magnified to the point where services provided by the city were on the verge of being cut off to residents of unincorporated areas. Similarly, services provided by the county were to be cut off to city residents as a retaliatory move. Discussions between the city and county were always attended by legal staffs. The threat of lawsuits and arbitrators to force the two entities to work together was the theme of many meetings.

The main issue was twofold. First, elected officials from both the city and the county felt that their positions were threatened by the integration study. Second, the then-current intergovernmental agreements had been in effect for 40 years in some cases. The only updates to these agreements had been through "gentlemen's agreements" and back-room politics. Working through these two issues was fundamental to improving intergovernmental relations.

The process used in Alamosa to improve city-county relations is not new. Managers simply applied good management techniques and dealt with each other in an open, communicative manner. This process included educational meetings for the city council and board of county commissioners, as well as other formal and informal meetings. Officials needed to work together as governmental entities to remove the personal stigmas that had in the past prevented solutions to city and county relations. The result was a team-building process that transcended city and county politics. In the end, this cooperative effort has benefited all residents of Alamosa and Alamosa County.

Historical Problems

When the effort was begun, it was imperative to address the recommendations of the integration study. The study was deficient in that it did not take into account the concerns of local elected officials regarding political territories. The study had been awarded to a "big-eight" CPA firm that had little understanding of rural local government realities. The result was that the study alienated both city and county officials. The decision, therefore, was made to shelve the integration study and to remain as two separate government organizations.

In addition, there had been a lack of leadership and poor communication between the city and county. Often, discussions were between different council members and commissioners, which tended to confuse communications.

To address this problem, management recommended that the city and county appoint an Intergovernmental Relations Committee. This committee, consisting of council members, county commissioners, the city manager and the county manager, served as a conduit for the flow of information.

The managers' responsibilities were to collect data and assess the effects of various alternatives to be considered. This provided the Intergovernmental Relations Committee the opportunity to focus on issues related to negotiating new contracts. The city and county managers were given additional responsibility of negotiating closure of all previous contracts. This process made it possible to focus the discussion of the Intergovernmental Relations Committee on needs regarding services and contracts.

Management of the two entities discussed the many interpretations of the previous contracts and concluded that no single interpretation was possible because of various modifications to the contracts. Recognizing this reality, managers quantified a final settlement: The decision was made to negotiate a dollar amount for the contracts, rather than discuss the legal merits of the various previous contract modifications. Within one afternoon, the two government entities agreed to a financial settlement to cover all past contracts, some of which had not been paid in more than a year.

Working on Communication

Participating officials also realized that there was a lack of understanding of each entity's legal basis and authority. Previous administrations had not made the effort to educate themselves and their elected officials on the legal authority of other levels of local government. It was important for city council members to understand the authority and limitations of county government; likewise, the county commissioners needed to understand issues of city boundaries and home-rule authority and limitations.

To begin communication in this area, a series of nonthreatening breakfast meetings was scheduled, where it was possible to discuss subjects that previously caused consternation between city and county officials. Through these meetings, confusion regarding roles and responsibilities was eliminated. Additionally, officials built the framework for future cooperation based on a better understanding of the merits of each other's local government authority.

Finally, many of the intergovernmental agreements had been in place so long that many modifications had been made through unwritten gentlemen's agreements. These modifications were the most controversial of the intergovernmental agreements because, as faces changed through elections, interpretations of contracts varied and disagreements arose. This was approached by addressing each agreement on an individual basis, reviewing each contract to determine both written and oral commitments. At this point, it became a matter of dissecting the contracts to determine which written and oral clauses were now acceptable. These clauses then were combined to reach consensus on new contracts.

The city and county worked to reach agreement on noncontroversial issues first and then proceeded from those successes to build toward consensus on other issues. In Alamosa and Alamosa County, this approach resulted in a successful year of negotiations.


It has been three years since the Intergovernmental Relations Committee was formed and contracts renegotiated. The city and county have worked together on intergovernmental service delivery and made improvements through efficiencies

and teamwork. The goal was not to seek more revenues to continue providing necessary intergovernmental services. Rather, officials attempted to rethink how these services could be provided more efficiently at present funding levels. The benefit of this approach has been the opportunity of exploring new funding and management mechanisms for each service.

The specific intergovernmental services are briefly presented here as they relate to Alamosa.

Airport. There was little controversy surrounding this agreement. The most recent contract had been signed in 1949. The issue concerning this contract was the vagueness surrounding management of the airport. Traditionally, management was provided by either the city or the county based on whichever was able to provide management services. The result was that the airport stagnated. On this noncontroversial matter officials agreed that the city would provide management while the county provided funding. As a result, the airport is now growing.

Library. The library agreement was 25 years old when it was renegotiated in 1989. It stated that the county would provide funding but it did not set a specific amount. As a result, the library had to manage through annual fluctuations of the county budget. The new agreement dedicated a countywide mill levy to the library, which established a more stable source of income for the library system. This provided the opportunity to receive state equalization money and other grants to begin an upgrade of the library system.

Ambulance and Landfills. These two issues went hand-in-hand because funding levels were increasing and contracts had been altered outside of the legal system. Funding levels had been transposed, and entities were pitted against each other, using these services as leverage in negotiations. These issues provided the most intense debates on funding levels. A compromise offer to split the funding at 50 percent for each entity allowed the governing bodies to move on in their discussions.

One main concern was that management for these services was provided by individuals with little or no knowledge in the specific fields. To address this, a separate Health and Human Services Advisory Committee was formed to manage the ambulance service. This eventually led to the creation of the Alamosa Ambulance District in the spring of 1991.

The landfill issue has been mired in federal regulations that have altered the traditional "town dump" approach to solid waste management. To address this issue, the county sponsored a regional solid waste management study in the summer of 1991. The county is presently studying the results and is researching the possibilities suggested by the study.

Community Development and Recreation Departments. In the past, the city and county had joint community development and recreation departments. The community development office closed during negotiations, and the responsibility was relocated to the city and county managers' offices. This was accomplished without a loss in grant programs or development.

The recreation program changed when the city passed a sales tax devoted to recreational issues and took on the responsibility of providing recreational programs for the community.


After analyzing the results of the past three years of cooperation between the city and county, the outlook is optimistic. By taking a positive attitude toward intergovernmental relations and realizing that cooperation is the key to success in rural Colorado, Alamosa has taken a progressive leap forward. The reward to the community has been the construction of new ambulance and fire stations and $2 million of improvements at the airport. There has been a restructuring of economic development efforts. A cooperative effort that moved the city police into the county's law enforcement center also saved thousands of dollars. Currently, the county is considering the purchase of an asphalt plant with the capacity to supply both the county and the city, allowing both entities to increase their street maintenance capabilities.

The real success has been the change in attitude between the city and county. Both organizations now operate in a cooperative mode as opposed to the competitive attitude of years past. The city manager and county manager meet at least weekly to discuss issues that can be solved through the cooperation of the two organizations. They seek opportunities to work together and use combined resources to bring programs to the community that the two governments would otherwise be unable to provide.

After years of controversy and neglect, elected officials, administration and legal staffs have built a system for continued success in local intergovernmental relations.

MICHAEL HACKETT is the manager of the City of Alamosa, and JAMES MALLOY is the manager of Alamosa County and chair of the Colorado Association of County Administrators. This article is adapted from the article published in Colorado Municipalities, January-February 1992. The GFOA extends its thanks to the Colorado Municipal League for permission to reprint.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Government Finance Officers Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Spotlighting Small Governments
Author:Hackett, Michael; Malloy, James
Publication:Government Finance Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Previous Article:The School Employees Retirement System of Ohio's prescription for cost-effective health care.
Next Article:An IRS regulation as a catalyst for change? How Berkeley reduced red tape for mileage reimbursements.

Related Articles
Competition among States and Local Governments: Efficiency and Equity in American Federalism.
Reshaping state and local budgeting.
Intergovernmental Fiscal Relations in Canada.
Federal-provincial relations exclude social issues in health care policy. (Health).
Making local government more workable through shared services.
Federalism and public health law in Canada: opportunities and unanswered questions.
Perspectives on fiscal federalism.
American intergovernmental relations; foundations, perspectives, and issues, 4th ed.
The emergency response: "a great story".

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters