RIFLE, Colorado - A feisty exchange between a couple of local politicians was taken in stride Tuesday by Colorado's senior U.S. senator during a meeting about how to get $17 million out of federal hands and into the hands of Western Slope communities affected by the oil shale boom and bust of the 1980s.
"I don't relish being King Solomon," said U.S. Sen Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, reacting to a short dispute between Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert and Garfield County Commissioner John Martin, "and hopefully, I won't have to be."
Udall attended a meeting of elected officials from Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, and from the towns of Rifle and Silt.
The get-together was arranged by Udall's office to give the senator a chance to hear how local leaders feel about the $17 million, which was collected as part of the Naval Oil Shale Reserve Trust Fund starting in the 1980s.
A new boom in natural gas drilling has taken over where oil shale left off, and the counties and towns have said they could make good use of the money they were meant to receive two decades ago.
But given the shared interests of the counties and towns, "It's not as straightforward as one may think it is," Lambert told the senator.
Moments earlier, Udall had promised the collected officials, "We're going to do everything we can to get the money into the hands of the people to whom it's owed."
He noted that the money, which was intended to offset boom-town impacts to local counties and towns during the oil shale boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s, has been in federal hands since the boom went bust in 1982.
Glancing down at his notes, Udall said, "It says here something about the money was stolen" from the people, and used for other purposes. The joke elicited a laugh from his staff and from the local elected officials.
Udall and other legislators, including U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, have been working on legislation to send the $17 million to the counties it was originally intended for - Garfield, Rio Blanco, Mesa and Moffat.
Garfield Commissioner Mike Samson noted that the funds originally were to be divided among the four counties, with Rio Blanco and Garfield each getting 40 percent, and Moffat and Mesa each receiving 10 percent.
Lambert objected to that arrangement. "The municipalities have been equally affected by all this," he said, referring to the stresses of the oil shale boom. He urged Udall to be sure legislation includes language sending some of the impact funds to Rifle, Parachute and Silt.
Commissioner Martin responded that the issue is tangled up with Payments In Lieu of Taxes (or PILT), another pot of federal money distributed to counties with large amounts of federal land that are not charged property taxes by the counties. When counties receive federal mineral impact funds, he explained, the amount of those impact funds is cut out of the following year's PILT payments.
Garfield County's PILT payments, for example, have been cut from an expected amount of $1.8 million this year to about $300,000, as a result of this set of rules, Martin said.
And, he warned, the county's share of the $17 million might get similarly tangled with the PILT payments, which cities do not deal with because they contain no federal land within their boundaries.
Lambert remained focused on his city's needs. "For us not to be considered in some form is a crying shame. All I'm asking is that there is some consideration for the municipalities," he said.
Silt Mayor Dave Moore asked if Lambert was referring to all six towns in the county, including Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, which Moore said had not been as directly affected as the towns along the I-70 corridor.
When Lambert indicated he felt all six towns deserved some of the funds, Samson disagreed.
Imagining a request for a share from officials in Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, Samson said, "I don't think your communities were impacted as much as Rifle and Parachute, and Silt, to some extent."
Udall did not take a side in the debate. He and his staff indicated they will welcome input and ideas from the counties and municipalities as they craft the legislation to send the $17 million to the Western Slope.
"I don't want to leave people with the impression that this is going to be easy," Udall cautioned his listeners.