Mike Lawrence: The camel in the tent

Changing grant funds would be the straw that:

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One thing I like about living in Northwest Colorado is hearing new colloquialisms.

Like the saying Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger - a constant source for off-the-cuff ranching vernacular - taught me Monday.

"Once the camel gets his nose in the tent, there's no telling how much more of him will get in there," Monger said, during a conversation about the allocation of federal dollars to Routt County.

The latest Mongerism threw me for a loop, until Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak helped out.

"The way I'd say it is: 'give somebody an inch, and they'll take a mile,'" Stahoviak translated.

Monger - the sharp-as-a-tack West Routt rancher, longtime commissioner and new president of Colorado Counties, Inc. - was telling me about an issue he plans to raise at a March 16 luncheon with Gov. Bill Ritter.

Monger said Ritter could change how Colorado uses a portion of its federal mineral lease subsidies, which are allocated to communities affected by energy or mineral development and which for years have contributed heavily to Routt County's Road and Bridge Department.

County Finance Director Dan Strnad said the amount of federal mineral dollars coming to Routt County - primarily because of Twentymile Coal Company in West Routt - has ranged from a high of $550,000 in 1998 to a low of $220,000 in 2004. The money has been used for road and bridge construction, improvements and maintenance across the county, Strnad said.

Senate Bill 127, proposed by state Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, would shift $30 million each to the state's public school and capital construction funds, if the state's total mineral lease revenues exceed $120 million. The bill would be effective July 1 and is awaiting action from a Senate committee.

Monger said he has heard Ritter could work with the Democrat-dominated state Legislature to kill that bill and replace it with one of his own that would shift more of the federal dollars to K-12 education in Colorado.

"We're concerned about that," said Monger, an active Democrat himself. "The mineral lease subsidies should be spent for natural resource purposes, and not be a general subsidy for the state of Colorado. Those monies need to come back to their counties of origin."

Monger said SB 127 or legislation sparked by Ritter could affect the availability of "energy impact" grants distributed by the state's Department of Local Affairs. Those grants are heavily funded by the federal mineral dollars.

"As the mineral and energy industry continues to expand, those monies would expand as well - and (Penry's bill) would cap those revenues," Monger said. "If you have increased mineral exploration and all the rest, you'll also have increased costs and impacts."

In Routt County, millions of dollars in energy impact grants have been awarded for uses including road improvements near Hayden, Oak Creek and Steamboat, and for new electronic airplane surveillance equipment at Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden.

And in a way, energy impact grants already are funding local education - $300,000 in grant funds will be used for the new South Routt Early Learning Center in Yampa, and the Hayden School Board is applying for $500,000 to help fund a new regional vocational facility to be named the Babson Carpenter Career and Technical Education Center.

But those are capital projects that don't require long-term funding. Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush questioned Monday whether federal mineral lease dollars are the right way for the state to solve its K-12 budget problems.

"These (federal) monies are boom or bust," she said. "But for K-12, we need a steady source of funds - how much would this really help education?"

Strnad said the federal subsidies vary for Routt County according to whether Twentymile is mining on federal, state or private land in a given year.

"If we lose that money, it's a big hit," he said. "They want to balance the state's budget on the county's back."

For counties affected by booming energy and mineral development industries across the Western Slope, shifting those dollars could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203

or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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