In rural counties, where funds for local government staff can come under stress in normal times, let alone during recessions, volunteers play an enormous role in helping ensure the continuity of a community. At a time when some might be skeptical of “government,” citizen volunteers fill vast swaths of local government support functions. This is especially true in Colorado’s rural counties, where the gap between funding needs and available revenue can sometimes be major.
Of Colorado’s 79,884 square miles of land mass, some 77 percent of that area is considered rural. Without the strong support of volunteers, it’s doubtful rural governments could accomplish anywhere near what they do. Most rely on a combination of paid staff, paid leadership (commissioners) supplemented by generous volunteer time and volunteer expertise.
Chaffee County is no exception. While the county is lead by three county commissioners and a director of general administration, some 20 boards and commissions handle a multitude of county government functions. They range from the Airport Board and the Transportation Board, to the Marijuana Excise Tax Board, the Visitors Bureau and the Weed Control Board, each with a staggered set of terms of service. In 2019, those county boards and commissions include around 137 people volunteering their time to serve the community.
When the City of Salida and the towns of Buena Vista and Poncha Springs are included, well over 200 people are volunteering their time in some capacity to their local governments. This doesn’t include the hundreds of Chaffee County residents who generously volunteer their time on a vast array of non-profit boards and commissions.
While most rural counties seem not to lack for volunteers, not everyone is willing or suited, to take leadership roles. In rural areas where incomes are usually not as high as metro area wages, families may be working two, three or more jobs to afford the local cost of living, which makes for scarce time left to volunteer. While that reality is apparent across the U.S., research has shown that even in low-income areas, volunteering as a shared value is important to a community.
“I think the biggest volunteering need in this community is leadership and organizers. There seems to be many willing to volunteer, but few who are willing to take a leadership role,” said a Sumner County, Kansas official, in a recent study Volunteering in Under-Resourced Rural Communities.
The study looked at how the concept of “volunteering” translates across socio-economic boundaries. It specifically looked at the role volunteering plays in meeting the needs of lower-income families and transforming communities into family-supportive places. For rural areas, the roadblocks to volunteering are often related to common challenges such as transportation and the distances between places. This can lead to what the study called “place-based solutions,” that allow people to serve where they are.
While the study is long, the answer is short: the role of volunteers is critical, perhaps especially in rural areas.
For some perspective, 73 percent of Colorado’s 64 counties are rural; 17 are considered urban (including the expanding nine-county metro Denver area), while 24 counties are rural and 23 are considered “frontier.” Frontier is a subset of rural, referring to counties with a population of six or fewer people per square mile. Chaffee County is considered rural.
Rural counties and the volunteers who serve their fellow citizens have the further challenge of distance here in Colorado, where the average rural county covers nearly 1,700 square miles. While Chaffee is a fairly contained county of 1,015 square miles, it makes up for that in 14,000-foot altitude. Las Animas, the largest county in the state, totals approximately 4,773 square miles, or nearly four times the size of Rhode Island.
2019 Chaffee County Boards and Commissions
Board Current #/volunteers
Airport Board 10
Board of Adjustments 4
Board of Review 4
Central CO. Law Enforcement Training Authority 2
Common Ground Citizen Advisory Committee 7
Fair Board 14
Fire Code Adoption & Revision Commission 4*
Heritage Advisory Board 11
Library Board – Northern Chaffee District 5
Library Board – Southern Chaffee District 5
Marijuana Excise Tax Advisory Board 8
Planning Commission 9
Regional Emergency Medical & Trauma Advisory Council 6
Right to Ranch “Panel” 5
Salida Regional Planning Commission 3
Transportation Advisory Board 15
Upper Arkansas Enterprise Zone Advisory Committee 2
Unmanned Aircraft Systems 10
Visitors Bureau 8
Weed Advisory Board 5
*Note, in a few cases these boards include members who work in official capacities but bring their expertise to the overall board.
.To reach a pdf that includes the roster of every current Chaffee County advisory board, or commission go to www.chaffeecounty.org/EndUserFiles/61883