Howard Tritz: Celebrating Service to Lake County
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
When it comes to worst first-day-on-the-job stories, former Lake County Assessor Howard Tritz might have everyone beat.
While his last day on the job after more than 20 years, was officially one week ago today, it is Tritz’s very first day on the job that speaks to his genuine character.
It was 1993 and scandal was rocking the Lake County Courthouse, this time at the Assessor’s office. The Leadville attorney, and eventual run-away Assessor had ignited a firestorm that would have every Colorado property tax division descending on the county office, as audit after audit failed the state standards. Those who lived here during that time, might remember the long line of Lake County residents streaming out of the courthouse, a record 3,000 protests lodged against the Notice of Valuations (NOV) sent out in May of that odd-numbered valuation year. It didn’t take long for Lake County residents to see their property values had been disproportionately inflated, prompting the villagers to light their torches, and head down to the courthouse.
“I remember driving past the courthouse and seeing the long line of people, and thinking, ‘I wonder what’s going on there?’” recalled Howard Tritz in a recent interview with Leadville Today.
So when the Commissioners made the initial phone call to Tritz, inviting him to come down and talk to them about taking over the recently abandoned Assessor’s office until the election, he might have had somewhat of an idea of what he was getting into. However, nothing could prepare Tritz for what was about to unfold.
Much like Leadville’s Unsinkable Molly Brown, Tritz’s iceberg was concealing a much bigger set of problems underneath the surface, which would merge together into a sizeable storm on his first day on the job: June 19, 1993. Twelve people “from the state” were camped out at the Assessor’s office when Tritz first arrived. After the inflated NOVs, and record number of protests, the state brought a “clean-up” team, along with some bad news. Lake County had failed ALL of the different property valuation classifications in the audit. They flunked them all: residential, vacant land, agricultural, natural resources, mining, commercial.
“It was good training, to come in and get your ass kicked right off the bat,” said Tritz. “You’re definitely going to learn from that experience.”
But in true Leadville fashion, that wasn’t the only drama unfolding that day. Just as Tritz got the state people “settled in,” the Denver media showed up, TV cameras and all. But it wasn’t the failed audit that brought up the Front Range media, but rather a gruesome murder at a top law firm in San Francisco. The gunman, who took 8 lives and wounded six in California, was a John Ferri, who was taking vengeance after a bad business deal, which happened to include some Lake County property. The reporters wanted to know where the property was located, so they could go and roll some film, for the Colorado “angle” to the story. LINK
“I came in here really not knowing what I was getting into,” said Tritz about that worst first-day-on-the-job. “But, I never even thought about walking away.”
So, like gold, refined in the heat of a fire, Tritz turned that first day into a solid 20+ year working relationship with the state folks, and re-established trust to the Assessor’s office for Lake County residents.
Howard Tritz: Growing up in Leadville
Howard Tritz has the kind of commitment, integrity and loyalty that defines old-school Leadville leadership. So it probably comes as no surprise that he is a native son of Lake County, growing up on Leadville’s East Side (#EastSideRules!)
It was Leap Year, Feb. 29, 1936, when Howard arrived as the first born son of four boys (Howard, Kenny, Donny, Michael). His arrival marked the 3rd generation of Leadville Tritzs, which boasts such notable as his Irish-jigging, saloon-running Great Grandmother who lived in “Finn Town,” east of Leadville. And a Great Grandfather arriving in 1879, the same year the Tabor Opera House, the old St. Vincent Hospital, and the Silver Dollar Saloon were built. Tritz’s father was one of 8 children, so the Tritz family name grew with each generation. His dad worked at the Climax Mine as a re-grind operator. His mother suffered a stroke at 36, leaving the oldest Tritz to help his mother with the younger siblings.
When Howard was 10 years old he secured his first job: East Side newspaper boy. His faithful companion along the route was a pony name Muggins. Up and down, side to side they would go, making the door-to-door deliveries. Muggins was a well-known “free spirit” in the neighborhood, roaming as he cared, getting into mischief from time to time. This also made Muggins the “butt” of a practical joke or two. Tritz recanted one such gag attributed to childhood friend and neighbor, George Webster (yep, that George!) While it would be years before the prankster admitted to the feat, it was George who put those oversize pantaloons from the big German women’s clothesline, onto the back half of Muggins, sending that pony back home, and disgracing his young owner.
But growing up on Leadville’s East Side during the Depression wasn’t all bloomers and sunshine.
“There were some tough kids in the neighborhood,” recalled Tritz. One such East Side bully, was a boy by the name of Rupert, who had challenged Tritz to a scrappy after-school fight. Even back then, Tritz was a solid negotiator, and had managed to convince his opponent to re-schedule the battle with a more formal boxing match. He had even secured two pair of leather boxing gloves, ironically, from his cousin Don Moffett, who would go on to become a Lake County Commissioner. Hey kids, you never know what future leaders you could be going to school with in a town like Leadville!
The afternoon of the boxing match came. The East Side Irish kids gathered round to see the showdown between skinny Tritz and the more formidable Rupert. Then, in a first-one-out-of-the-corner, take-no-prisoners, punch, Tritz came at that bully, stiff-armed, and broke that boy’s nose, sending blood and snot flying everywhere! It was over, just like that.
The kids walked away one by one, disappointed in the brevity of it all, as if they had a right to ask for a refund to a prizefight they never paid admission to. At the end of this battle, the victor’s trophy was worn by the loser, in the form of a metal nose guard, used in those days to stint a broken nose. Needless to say, Tritz entered adolescence with a certain “don’t mess with Howard” reputation. Not a bad carry-on bag for the torments of high school.
And better yet, that one-punch, childhood training may have readied him, for some other unexpected aspects of being the Assessor in Lake County.
“I never had a guy come in and give me trouble,” said Tritz, recounting stories from his 20+ years in office. “But, I remember this one woman, who came into my office, slammed the door behind her, and told me that she was gonna kick my ass!” Over the valuation of her property! Fortunately, one of Tritz’s assistant’s went for the Sherriff, providing a peaceful ending to the “Story of the Walk-Out Basement.” By the way, that tough, mountain woman’s threat didn’t change the property classification or valuation; Tritz stood his ground!
But before all of that, Howard Tritz worked at the Climax Mine for about 30 years, starting in 1961 as a laborer in the mill. Tritz would eventually work his way up to Mill Superintendent, until the mine finally laid everyone off, and went into “fire watch” status in the early 1990s.
As for his success at the Lake County Assessor’s office, Tritz humbly credits the people he has hired over the years who have made him look good.
“I mean, if I’m good, it’s because I hire good people,” he concluded.
When asked what his retirement plans include, Tritz rattled off a list of projects that he has underway, most include wood. A woodcrafter since high school, including the few years he owned and operated Matchless Woodcrafters, a custom cabinet-making business, Howard’s future projects include framing the remaining 30 historic pictures that line the courthouse hallway. He calls it his Labor of Love. Then, there’s the oversized Sixth Street Gym historic photo, which he plans to frame with some of the old gym flooring, which Tritz set aside during the recent renovation.
So, he’s got things to do, but he did emphasize that he will miss the job as Assessor.
“I have enjoyed it,” stated Tritz, sharing too many tales to include in this one story; but they’re in the vault, Howard!
Actually, if there’s one piece of Lake County Assessor history that really should be shared, it’s the tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted Oath of Office that “Coward Fritz” was asked to sign at his first official meeting with the Board of County Commissioner, in June 1993.
It’s the kind of document that you just don’t see enough of, in this politically correct, hyper-sensitive world. The oath’s promises include providing the daily allotment of doughnuts, and buying the beer during official road trips with the county commissioners.