Government planning and projects, economic development efforts, health care reform, area schools and the natural gas industry were all topics at the eighth annual State of the Community luncheon on Thursday, Feb. 14.
Around 200 people attended the event, sponsored by the Rifle Area Chamber of Commerce at Grand River Hospital's ballroom.
Commissioner Mike Samson of Rifle said the state of the county was "very good," and mentioned five master plans had either been completed or were under way: energy, the county landfill, facilities, fleet management and how the county's regional airport outside Rifle can help spur business growth.
"Garfield County has around 500 workers, and they help contribute $1.2 million into our local economies," Samson added.
The county's Federal Mineral Leasing District was established in the last year and has distributed millions of dollars in energy-related tax funds to local governments in the county, Samson continued.
"We also want to start what we're calling monthly 'CEO breakfasts' with the
commissioners, so we can get the input of business leaders from across the county on economic development strategies," Samson said.
This year is expected to be similar to last year in terms of the local economy, Samson added.
"On a down note, our tax revenue from property taxes will go down with the new assessed valuations," he said. "So we'll just tighten our belt tighter in 2014. But we've been wise stewards of the county's money and we'll continue to be in good shape."
City of Rifle
Mayor Jay Miller recounted the status of the city's new $25 million water treatment plant that's scheduled to start construction this spring, along with passage of the 3/4 cent sales tax hike in November.
"That was a wonderful opportunity for us to go back and help lower the increase in your water bills," Miller said.
The hiring of John Dyer as the new police chief, to replace the retired Daryl Meisner after 39 years, was a highlight of the past year, Miller said.
A downtown strategic planning process was begun, Miller continued, that led to an action plan to help guide future downtown development.
The city also dealt with unexpected events, such as a flash flood along Hubbard Gulch that sent mud into the amphitheater and other areas of Centennial Park this past summer.
"The thing about that was the amphitheater was designed to handle a flood with mud and debris and it did what it was designed to do," Miller said. "I was proud of our city crews, too, because they had it all cleaned out and washed away in five hours. You would have never known it happened."
The flood also took out the 12th Street steel culvert, which was replaced with a sturdier concrete box culvert and bridge, Miller noted.
Infrastructure was installed at the city's Energy Innovation Center site, next to the wastewater treatment plant, which was also the site of a compost operation that was shut down last summer due to odor problems, Miller said.
Sidewalks were improved or replaced, Airport Road was overlaid and Fifth Street, which Miller called "the worst street in town," was replaced and a new water line was installed to better serve area residents.
Other street projects included 16th Street to Graham Mesa Elementary School and improvements to the confusing three-way intersection of Colorado Highway 13, U.S. Highway 6 and White River Avenue, Miller continued.
An important improvement was repairs to the city's water intake dike along the Colorado River, which was damaged by high water in 2011, Miller said.
"If we had lost that intake, it would have been a complete disaster," he added.
Large rocks were placed along the bank of the intake pond to help prevent future damage.
This year, Miller said the city is looking to finish the renovation and repairs to the New Ute Events Center.
"We have the money in the budget, but council has not decided to spend it yet until we know what our funding looks like" this year, Miller stated.
Last year was challenging in terms of economic development, said Rifle Regional Economic Development Corp. President Michael Langhorne.
"But that only reaffirmed the need for our efforts to continue," he added.
Last year was also the first the nonprofit group had taken a "regional" approach to economic development, Langhorne noted. Representation included Parachute, Battlement Mesa and New Castle, with the Grand Valley Economic Development Committee helping with the first "Taste Fest" for restaurants in Parachute and Battlement Mesa, Langhorne said.
A meet-your-business and business mentor program was also started by that committee, he added.
The New Castle Economic Advisory Committee helped produce a brochure to attract an outdoor recreation retailer, Langhorne said, and worked with an assisted living center prospect. He also noted the town has a year-long celebration planned for its 125th anniversary this year.
In Rifle, the first year's receipts from the Brenden Theaters, as repayment to the city for helping lower the costs of locating the movie theater in Rifle, were made.
The city of Rifle received $81,000 in lease payments last year under a 10-year agreement, Langhorne continued. The $6 million theater project was built with $3.5 million going to local contractors, he said.
Through November, Langhorne said the theaters sold 107,000 movie tickets, which represented sales of $1.4 million. Wages paid to theater workers were around $200,000 Langhorne said.
"Those 107,000 people were slightly less than what Brenden had hoped, but they weren't unhappy either," Langhorne said. "We're continuing to work on other lots in Rifle Creek Plaza, which is where the theater is located."
Other accomplishments included the start up of a Main Street program to help downtown businesses and a $1 a year lease of the former Snow White Linen property to serve as the site of community events, Langhorne said.
Health care reform
The state of the U.S. health care system and the issue of health care reform was explained by Grand River Hospital District CEO Jim Coombs, who noted "we won't have reform until we improve personal behaviors."
"Cutting funding for K-12 education and public health has more impact on our health care costs and healthy behaviors over time," Coombs said.
Grand River, Coombs added, "has shamelessly borrowed from the best health care operators around the country" in reaction to reform efforts.
Garfield School District Re-2 Superintendent Dr. Susan Birdsey said education also faces changes. However, she said things like unified improvement plans required by the state of Colorado "can help us understand where our students are academically and what we need to focus on" to improve.
"This year is the first time in a long time we've seen some small improvements in our math scores," Birdsey continued.
She also recounted how a student she had to expel seemed to turn around, was nominated for student of the year and made the honor roll the next year.
"This student is now a class leader by example," Birdsey said. "We always strive to make that kind of connection with all students, to find out what makes each student tick, so they can tick better."
The district's switch to a four-day school week this year has had no negative impact on student achievement through the first six months of the school year, Birdsey added, according to quarterly assessments.
"We have 13 more students this year than last year and the numbers of students in our free or reduced lunch program has dropped," Birdsey said.
State per pupil funding has declined by six percent in the last five years, she said, while the consumer price index has increased by that amount.
The district has cut $3 million from its budget over the last three years, and this year the district hoped for a modest increase in state funds, she continued.
"We have a rainy day fund and we decided that it's raining," Birdsey said. "So the school board has decided to drawn down our fund balance by $2 million over the next two years."
On a positive note, Birdsey said the student health center the district opened along with the hospital district had seen 573 patients and had more than 1,000 patient visits. And the "Gus the Bus" program that uses a refitted school bus to visit specific neighborhoods and allow preschool-aged children get an early start on their education has served more than 50 children, Birdsey said.
Close to 100 students are taking dual enrollment courses at Colorado Mountain College while they are in high school, she noted.
The increase in natural gas development in the much more populated Front Range of Colorado has led to the industry moving to a "misinformation management mode," said Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association Executive Director David Ludlam.
The move was felt necessary to counteract what the industry feels is misleading and false information from well-funded national environmental groups, Ludlam said.
"We felt a need to put things in their proper context," he added.
Communities on the Front Range have reacted to drilling plans within their boundaries by imposing moratoriums and taking other steps, Ludlam said. Even Colorado Springs, perhaps the state's most conservative city, "wants nothing to do with drilling," he added.
Advertising campaigns, community outreach and industry mobilization are all steps the industry has or plans to take in response, Ludlam said.
For instance, Ludlam said hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of gas wells uses just .8 percent of all water in Colorado, similar to snowmaking at the state's ski resorts.
"In fact, the combustion of methane actually releases more water into the air than we will ever use in fracking," he noted. "This all just shows that we need to take control of the environmental message when it comes to drilling."
Ludlam also said the industry planned to point out the "philosophical inconsistency" among those in the environmental movement who advocate for a lifestyle without natural resource development, but with "no cohesion with what they actually do in their lives."
"We have to do a better job of working with people and reconnect them with all that energy is and does," Ludlam said.