by Ernest Luning (May 4, 2017)
A couple of weeks after the House voted unanimously to concur with a lone Senate amendment, changing the word “shall” to “may,” the bill to clarify and update state law concerning county surveyors had landed on the governor’s desk.
After welcoming the bill’s sponsors and a handful of stakeholders, along with several Capitol visitors who wanted to witness a bill signing, it only took a few minutes for Gov. John Hickenlooper to sign House Bill 1017 and then hand out the pens he’d used. Accepting his, state Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, who spearheaded the bill, mentioned that it was the first legislation he’d sponsored to be signed into law, and Hickenlooper smiled and congratulated him.
A few moments later, it was another group of lawmakers and interested parties huddling around the governor’s desk for another bill signing. In the foyer outside Hickenlooper’s office, Kennedy thanked the bill’s Senate sponsors, state Sens. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulpher Springs, and Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, and checked the clock before hurrying off for a committee hearing.
“Even when we deal with topics that aren’t particularly glamorous, this is a big part of the work of the state — keeping things up to date, making sure things are calibrated,” Kennedy later told The Colorado Statesman. “I had fun with it.”
The governor signed 16 bills into law that day, on March 8, and most of them were the same sort of measures that keep the state and its many functions running smoothly. But while House Bill 1017 didn’t generate headlines or really any controversy — it sailed through both chambers on a series of unanimous votes, including the one to approve the single-word amendment — its sponsors and the state’s corps of professional surveyors say they hope it will help ameliorate a longstanding problem, that most Colorado counties are technically violating the state’s constitution by leaving the office vacant. The bill also attempts to clean up a couple of matters in the law concerning surveyors that needed fixing, backers say.
Surveyors will add that the foundation of American society rests on their work and that the very notion of private and public property depends on what they do. And, while the rules surrounding surveying might not, in fact, be glamorous, the framework Colorado uses traces its roots back to the founding of the country, and it supports the fabric of civil society.
When the Professional Land Surveyors of Colorado decided it was time to resolve some longstanding issues by proposing legislation, it made sense to approach Kennedy, who worked briefly as a surveyor on the way to becoming an architectural engineer.
“I’m familiar with what surveyors do,” Kennedy said, noting that he did a lot of surveying for an engineering firm in Colorado Springs. He’d also spent some time figuring out the ins and outs of how county surveyors run for election — it’s a partisan race — when he chaired the Jefferson County Democrats and had gotten to know a candidate for that county’s office.
“The surveyors were looking at a legislative idea to make it easier for counties to comply with the vacancy process in the event someone doesn’t run,” Kennedy said, pointing out that county commissioners can appoint a surveyor in the event no one gets on the ballot and wins election to the office but that all too few do. “Technically speaking,” he added, “that is a violation of the constitution.”
In order to encourage more counties to fulfill their duty, the bill extends the deadline to appoint a county surveyor from 90 days to six months. It also clarifies exactly what’s required of the elected officer and sets out how counties can contract for additional survey duties, potentially making it possible for more surveyors to fill the office while still being able to make a living.
The elected office of county surveyor is established in Colorado’s constitution, and every county is supposed to have one, just as all counties have sheriffs, assessors and treasurers, but over the years it’s become a sort of Rodney Dangerfield of offices, struggling to get respect. At last count, only 27 of Colorado’s 64 counties had surveyors, including both those elected and those appointed by commissioners, and 37 of them didn’t.
One reason, surveyors say, is because the pay is so paltry. Salaries currently range from $1,000 per year for surveyors in the smallest counties up to $5,500 per year for surveyors in the largest counties. That compares to a range from $9,000 to $87,300 per year for county coroners and $39,700 to $87,300 for county commissioners, treasurers, assessors and clerks. Sheriffs have a slightly higher pay range, starting at $46,500 in the smallest counties and topping out at $111,100 in the largest counties.
“County surveyors have one set of official duties and one set of discretionary duties,” Kennedy noted. “One official duty is to represent the county in boundary disputes, but the last time I can imagine this came to bear was when Broomfield became the city and county of Broomfield. It sounds like once upon a time these boundary disputes were much more common, largely because the records weren’t very good.”
A more commonly performed official duty, Kennedy said, is to file surveys, calculations and maps related to boundaries, involving internal issues, county properties and the lines between county property and private property. “More often than not, counties will assign a county clerk to take care of the record-keeping piece, which works, but surveyors would argue they don’t have the expertise to handle these duties,” he said.
There are also plenty of discretionary duties, such as examining plats before they’re filed with the county. “Counties can still contract these out to surveying firms, but it’s been unclear,” Kennedy said. “Part of the bill is clarifying that, yes, these are discretionary duties and you can contract them out, but if you assign them to the county surveyor, you need to pay him or her for it. In certain cases, surveyors have been asked to go above and beyond when they do these discretionary services.”
Lawmakers tried a different approach last year, proposing a constitutional amendment to allow counties to determine whether to elect or appoint surveyors. The legislation — sponsored by state Sens. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, and Beth Martinez Humenik, R-Thornton, and state Reps. Lois Court, D-Denver, and Kevin Priola, R-Brighton — lost on the Senate floor, receiving 20 votes in favor and 15 votes against, which failed to achieve the two-thirds approval required to send a constitutional amendment to the ballot.
According to the state constitution, county surveyors must be professional land surveyors and are responsible for conducting surveying duties involving county property, as well as settling boundary disputes and creating survey markers and monuments. They also are supposed to conduct surveys involving road rights-of-way and supervise construction surveys that involve the county. On top of that, county surveyors supervise county record-keeping when it comes to land survey plats, which underlay all the property records in a county.
“Why do only half the counties have county surveyors? You start off by giving them half the money that would be insulting to a Walmart greeter,” said surveyor Paul Bacus, who chairs the legislative committee for the Professional Land Surveyors of Colorado and owns Lafayette-based Bacus Land Surveying.
“It will make it easier, without a doubt, for more counties to fill the office,” he told The Statesman. “Is it going to be easy? No. There’s quite a bit that needs to be done.”
He said he talked with surveyors, including county surveyors and others who contract with counties, over a period of two years and discovered some of the reasons it’s so hard for counties to fill the positions. “The reason why I did this is because of the conflicts they have about how they’re being paid,” he said. “My job is to fix it. I hope I have.”
In addition, Bacus added, “There just aren’t that many surveyors,” so in some parts of the state, county surveyors also do consulting in surrounding counties. He said he hopes the new legislation will clarify procedures to the extent counties are more willing to let surveyors do what they’re supposed to be doing and compensate them fairly for it.
Then Bacus gave a brief description of his field and its importance, something that happens more often than not when surveyors talk about their job.
“I can take an instrument out into my front yard and I can tell you the precise distance from that point to the top of the Washington Monument,” he said. “The ability for me to have such accuracy is astounding. I started with chains and transits and logbooks. Our industry is changing like mad, and we need to ensure that the values surveyors have are maintained.”
“Boundaries,” he added, “are held by two devices — the deed and the monuments in the ground.” And the county surveyor has a hand in establishing and maintaining both.
“If you have a dispute over the location of a section quarter, for instance, a resident can petition the county and the county surveyor will investigate it and come up with a solution,” Bacus said. “This is the only way you can determine a legal corner in the law. It’s not used very often, but it’s extremely important.”
While the role of a county surveyor might be less central to state operations than it was when Colorado was young and county boundaries weren’t as clear, the office still conducts critical work that helps keep everything running smoothly. “As we get more people, boundaries become denser. And as boundaries become more dense, conflicts become more common,” he said.
“The concept is that we can repair the fabric of America,” Bacus concluded. “The only way you can mend this is through the courts or the county surveyor.”
Grand County Surveyor Warren Ward was first elected in 1990 — he’s a Republican, like virtually every elected official in the county — and has won reelection every four years since. (The county did away with term limits for surveyor before they would have forced him out.)
Ward, who testified in support of House Bill 1017, applauded the legislation and said he hopes it will make it easier for more counties to operate like Grand did for decades.
“County surveyors’ duties vary widely, just as every county operates differently,” he told The Statesman. “Every county has a different population and a different geographic area. That’s why it seems confusing to people but it does not need to be.”
Ward also offered a history lesson and some words on the importance of his profession.
“The basic framework of our society was started, even before we had a Constitution of the United States, and it was by sheer luck that both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had worked with county surveyors,” Ward said. “When they began governing a new country, they had to invent a system so that people could buy and own land in a free country. The system they invented is the system we use today — they also invented the whole concept of having both government and private surveyors — they had envisioned that the government and private surveyors would be working in tandem to create what is an extremely successful system that is today taken for granted.”
So when Colorado became a state a century later, Ward noted, “It is by design that they adopted a lot of what was invented by Thomas Jefferson.” He added, “That word ‘county’ surveyor was not put into our constitution willy-nilly, and many of us are appalled at the way it’s taken for granted today. We love our job and we take it very seriously.”
The position, he said, is a crucial part of the way local government is designed to work.
“I am as passionate about local government as anyone in America, and I am involved in my local party,” Ward said. “Surveyors obviously do not make political decisions, but, like other government officials in local government, we take our jobs very seriously. We take an oath of office and we are carrying out duties that we think are an integral part of American society.”
Having a county surveyor in place — as opposed to the way most Colorado counties do it, which Ward described as “some sort of haphazard way, when county commissioners take on the management of surveying” — isn’t some arcane constitutional requirement, he argued.
“Every county does own property and need survey work, and they often need someone to help mediate confusion, whether it’s confusion in the location of boundary lines — the county surveyor does a lot of that and it is a great benefit to the taxpaying public,” Ward said.
Ward said the way Grand County handled surveyor duties — contracting with him to work full-time in a salaried position on top of his elected work — was an example for other counties to follow. “It is far more efficient and cost the taxpayer far less to employ their county surveyor than all of the other methods we’re aware of,” he said, adding, “At least six counties follow the ideal model, and in every case it works very well.”
But there are two reasons, he maintained, why so many counties have vacancies.
“First, local qualified surveyors refuse to run for an office they know is completely disrespected by their county commissioners,” Ward said. “And, two, qualified surveyors have volunteered to step in as appointed surveyors, and their commissioners have not responded to those requests. It turns into a political response to a professional vacancy. We wind up with nothing. Our effort this year with the law was simply to make it easier to follow our existing statute.”
Kennedy acknowledged that the changes to statute might not accomplish things overnight.
“It’s no guarantee,” he said. “I’m not expecting this to automatically change anything. What we’re hoping to do with the bill is hoping the counties know the rules. With a combination of clarity and more time, we’re hoping they get the job done. But there isn’t a lot of recourse.”
“For a lot of these guys,” he added, “it’s about reminding people that the profession is important.”
The bill isn’t set to take effect until Aug. 9 — assuming the General Assembly adjourns on May 10, as anticipated, and no referendum petition is filed — so it’s too early to tell whether it will yield the intended results. Ward said he’s hopeful but hasn’t heard much reaction to it yet, either among surveyors or from county officials.
Noting that in part due to his veteran status he serves as the “de facto moderator” between surveyors and counties, Ward said he regularly receives calls from surveyors all over the state who have asked how he would recommend they go about filling a vacancy in their county.
“We’re always swimming upstream, because most counties have at least one new commissioner every two years, and the county surveyor is probably last on their list of priorities,” he said.
Chuckling a bit because he was talking to a reporter, Ward added, “If you don’t hear a lot of publicity about county surveyors, that’s a good thing. That means they’re doing their job correctly.”
“We had a story in our little local paper about how frustrated the public was over the closing of a road they were rebuilding, and you could not tell that at the very bottom of it was a county surveyor issue,” he said. “This was a matter where they were not utilizing the county surveyor correctly. We make an impact and no one ever knows about it. When we’re doing our job, then you do not get stories in the paper about how frustrated people are.”