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For the Roaring Fork Valley, unwrapping the layers of government is sort of like peeling an artichoke to get to its heart.

The question then becomes what are the layers, and how important are they? The outermost layer is the federal system. The national government oversees the military, foreign affairs and federal taxes, federal courts, among others. 

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Then come the states, of which there are 50 — our array of territories, reservations and the District of Columbia is a topic for another time. States are responsible for their constitutions, national guard, state motor vehicle issues, state police, taxes, courts and more. Each state has its own government, with a governor and elected legislatures.

Each state has its own system of dividing up the region into counties or parishes (Louisiana). Colorado has 64 counties. Locally, the Roaring Fork Valley includes parts of four: Garfield, Eagle, Pitkin and Gunnison. According to Colorado Counties, Inc. (, “county responsibilities include sheriffs, unincorporated areas, public health, business and licensing, elections, irrigation districts plus other issues.” Some, like Garfield, adopt a standard set of rules provided by the state. Others, like Pitkin, are “home rule,” which allows them to, among other things, change the number of commissioners and how they’re elected.
Typically — though not always — smaller than that are incorporated municipalities and special districts. 

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Cities and towns are limited to exercising powers specifically granted to them by state law — again, with statutory and home rule variants. Some, like Basalt and Snowmass Village, encompass large areas outside the developed core. Others, like Carbondale, don’t even include some contiguous sections, like Satank, the area around the Red Rock Diner and the mobile home park along Snowmass Avenue. Redstone isn’t incorporated at all.

The Town of Carbondale uses sales tax to maintain utilities like water and sewer, contracts with outside companies for trash and power, sets building codes and zoning and otherwise runs affairs within city limits. Police powers enable municipalities to enforce local laws, as well as enact measures to preserve and protect the safety, health and welfare of the community.
Fire and ambulance service, however, is provided by a separate special district, which gains most of its funding through property taxes. Marble, meanwhile, gets its water from a non-municipal organization. 

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Special districts also fund education (Roaring Fork School District and Colorado Mountain College), recreation (Crown Mountain Park), hospitals (Grand River Health) and water (Colorado River Conservation). These entities are independent of municipal or county control, governed by their own elected boards and voter discretion.

All these boundaries overlap and sometimes have gaps, which can lead to confusion. 

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Perhaps the biggest source of confusion are zip codes, which really just determine which post office delivers your mail. But in El Jebel, both 81621 and 81623 can be accepted for the same address. And some areas within the Carbondale zip code — but far from town limits — are actually part of the Town of Basalt. 

Often, unincorporated areas have their own neighborhood names — based on census-designated places like Emma, developments like Swiss Village, or just common usage like Missouri Heights. So while it’s probably easier to just introduce yourself as a Carbondalian to most folks, there might be a more specific option for those in the know.

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Will Grandbois contributed to this report.

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