Local solutions for northwestern Colorado | PostIndependent.com

Local solutions for northwestern Colorado

My Side
State Sen. Jean White
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
State Sen. Jean White

The recession has hit rural Colorado worse than other parts of the state. At the end of 2011, the unemployment rate for the Western Slope was significantly higher than the statewide unemployment rate.

Just as economic conditions make it difficult for families on the Western Slope to make ends meet, local governments are struggling with the same issues. Many sources of revenue critical to northwestern Colorado’s cities and counties have been cut, transferred to projects in other parts of the state, or eliminated altogether.

This summer, I drove 12,000 miles throughout northwestern Colorado. I had the opportunity to visit 23 public schools and meet with local business owners. After spending so much time on the roads and in classrooms, I gained a thorough understanding of the need to repair both our schools and our roads.

But perhaps more importantly, I learned how public schools facing similar struggles were able to address their challenges in unique ways by turning to local solutions first. It is easy for communities to blame the state, the federal government, or the economy for their woes, but this does not bring them any closer to a solution.

The counties in northwestern Colorado have an opportunity to begin pulling themselves out of the downturn, not by petitioning the state for more money or by hoping for natural gas prices to rise, but by focusing on a local solution first.

Although many of the decisions made by the U.S. Congress or state budget officials to cut funding to rural Colorado cannot be easily reversed, there is an opportunity to keep more of the money intended for northwestern Colorado in the district.

That’s why I’m running Senate Bill 31, which will allow counties to keep the full amount of federal payments due to them for the federal land in their districts.

Currently, the federal government gives local governments Federal Mineral Lease (FML) payments, a portion of the revenue that comes from mineral extraction on federally owned land within the county. Counties also receive Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILT), which are meant to partially make up for the fact that federal land can’t be taxed by local counties. This money is typically used to fund local schools, road construction, firefighting, and police services.

Although counties are meant to receive both payments, the federal government cuts a county’s Federal Mineral Lease payment if they also receive PILT money. Counties can avoid the cut if the payments are administered by a government body independent of the county commission.

I am working to implement this solution by allowing counties to set up Federal Mineral Lease districts, independent government boards designated to receive and spend FML funds.

Since the federal government owns more than half of the land in my district, it’s critical that counties maximize the federal payments they are due. FML and PILT payments combined in my district – Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit counties – totaled $12 million last year. Setting up FML districts will allow counties to collect even more next year.

I started working on this issue last year and was the Senate sponsor of a bill to set up FML districts. So far, Garfield, Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties have seized the opportunity to get their full share of federal payments.

However, the system needs a few tweaks before a change in funding occurs. Senate Bill 31 will make the necessary changes and hopefully allow impacted communities to receive the full amount of both payments.

Not only will this bill increase the amount of money received from the federal government, it will also give districts additional flexibility on when to spend the funds, giving them the opportunity to bank funds for several years to fund larger-scale projects.

Having lived in northwestern Colorado for 38 years, I understand the importance of investing in our schools, roads and first-response services. Although many variables are out of our control – global market uncertainty, a difficult job market and the whims of the U.S. Congress – it is an honor to be able to make a difference for Northwestern Colorado in this small way.

State Sen. Jean White represents Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit counties. Contact her by email at Jean.White.Senate@ state.co.us or at (303) 866-5292.

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