Martin, Samson defend efforts to preserve Garfield County’s gas industry, extraction economy
Fund expenditures on behalf of industry a big part of that
John Martin considered not running for reelection to a seventh term as Garfield County commissioner, but his mind kept coming back to one thing in particular. And, it had a lot to do with where the county was back in 1996 when he first got elected.
“When I started, we were coming off of some extremely hard times. We were in debt as a county … then we saw the growth, and the changes, and the good times, and what have you, and now we have the downside again,” Martin said of the recent decline in Garfield County’s natural gas industry.
It won’t be easy to come out of the current decline, he said.
“People haven’t really opened up their eyes to see exactly what’s coming down the railroad tracks,” said Martin, a Republican, who is being challenged for his District 2 seat in the Nov. 3 election by Democrat Beatriz Soto and unaffiliated candidate Brian Bark.
For comparison, Martin points to the $900 million investment energy companies made during the oil shale boom of the late 1970s and early ’80s. The natural gas industry represents a $2.5 billion investment in the region.
“My philosophy and ability to manage through these extremely hard times is a test, and that is one of the biggest reasons I wish to stay to make sure that Garfield County and its citizens are not overwhelmed with that loss of revenue, and jobs,” Martin said.
Samson, also a Republican, is being challenged for the District 3 seat by Democrat and oil and gas industry critic Leslie Robinson in this fall’s election.
He concurs that the county must work to preserve the “goose that lays the golden egg,” as he refers to it.
A big part of that, he and Martin said, has been to use $1.5 million of the county’s special energy mitigation fund to hire consultants and legal advisors to offer recommendations, challenge and, when necessary, sue over the regulations coming out of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation (COGCC) and Air Quality Control (AQCC) Commissions’ ongoing Senate Bill 181 rule-making.
“You would be foolish not to admit that part of [the industry downturn] is that the price of natural gas is lower than was when I became a commissioner,” said Samson, who is seeking his fourth term on the all-Republican Board of County Commissioners.
“But, if we’re being honest with this, the oil and gas industry has been just lambasted in a lot of ways,” he says of stringent new regulations being pushed through the COGCC.
“That’s one of the things that concerns us as Garfield County commissioners, is the loss of jobs that we’ve had … good-paying jobs, not to mention the devaluation of property, which lowers the revenues that we get, not only as a county, but the schools, and hospital and fire districts,” Samson said.
“That will be the No. 1 issue between me and my opponent, because she is totally anti-oil and gas, and she has made that very clear,” he said.
Robinson, along with Soto, and to some degree Bark, have all criticized the county’s use of the energy mitigation funds on that front.
The Post Independent recently sat down with Martin and Samson together to talk about their respective reelection bids, philosophies on policy issues, where they agree, where they sometimes disagree, and why they believe they should be given another term.
Samson recalls a conversation with Martin soon after he was elected to his first term in 2008 about efforts to form a federal mineral lease district that would be separate from county government.
The idea was to direct the severance tax dollars from mineral extraction on federal lands to a special district, rather than to the county coffers, to then grant out to municipalities, schools, fire departments and other special districts for various projects and programs.
The proposal eventually made it through the Colorado Legislature with unanimous support, and Garfield County in 2012 became the first in the state to set up such a district, known as the Garfield Federal Mineral Lease District (FMLD).
Since then, the district, for which Samson serves on the grant review board, has awarded nearly $30 million to various political subdivisions from Carbondale to Parachute.
“That’s one of the big achievements we’ve had, and we want to continue that,” Samson said.
However, the revenues coming into that fund have dwindled in recent years from what used to be several million dollars a year to just $665,000 this year, he said.
“Those revenues are going down, and the needs are going up,” he said. “And it’s the oil and gas industry that has paid the lion’s share of that.”
Martin agreed the FMLD has been successful, and one that created a separate fund for Garfield County municipalities, schools and various taxing districts to tap into.
At the same time, it opened up the county’s ability to claim 100% of the federal Payments in Lieu of Tax, or PILT, dollars from the existence of Bureau of Land Management lands within the county, he noted.
“This way, the citizens and political subdivisions are getting their full share for the impact of energy [development], as well as having public lands in our county, which are not on the tax rolls,” Martin said.
Municipalities receive a double benefit, he noted, because they also receive their own share of federal dollars related to mineral extraction on public lands.
The various impacts of that industry are the reason the county commissioners, in the mid-2000s, created the special Energy, or Oil and Gas Mitigation Fund, Martin said.
“That is a true rainy day fund for Garfield County,” he said. “What it amounts to is, if there are no other dollars available, when it comes to the impact of energy and mining development, we can pull from that and use those funds in any way we choose.”
Signing on to be at the table during the COGCC rule-making process and related regulatory actions is a justified use of those funds, Martin said.
“We have to level the table so that we have an equal voice with everyone else,” he said. “It does take money to do that.
“It’s not to protect [the energy companies], it’s to protect the revenue that takes care of all the citizens,” Martin said.
Over the past five years, the county’s overall property tax assessed valuation has dropped from $3.9 billion to $2.3 billion, largely due to the downturn in the gas industry.
“Those tax dollars don’t just go to county government,” Martin said. “Seventy percent of it goes to the school districts, plus the hospital, fire and special districts.
“We are protecting the revenue sources of the entire county,” he said.
At the same time, he, Samson and Commissioner Tom Jankovsky have seen fit to use the energy mitigation funds to fight the lawsuit brought against the county by Rocky Mountain Industrials related to its limestone quarry near Glenwood Springs, Martin also noted.
Samson defends the use of the mitigation funds on oil and gas economic interests, saying it comes down to people, families and jobs.
“If someone is making $80,000 to $100,000 a year, you’re more likely to have the discretionary income to go out to eat, and go to shows, and spend money,” Samson said. “You lose those jobs in the oil and gas industry, not only is oil and gas not paying those tax bills, there’s a ripple effect all the way down the chain. We’re seeing those things, and it’s hurting us.”
Samson said he doesn’t disagree that the county should invest more in diversifying its economy and not be as dependent on the gas industry. He believes he’s done his part to help with that.
“We’ve never wanted our economy to be one thing,” he said. “We’ve always encouraged diversification. But, by the same token, we don’t want to slam the goose that lays the golden egg, and which pays the lion’s share of the things we enjoy.”
Like-minded, but independent
Though their terms happen to come up at the same time ever four years, Martin and Samson said they aren’t always inclined to see eye-to-eye.
“I hear the criticism that we’re three old, white males up here making all the decisions for the people of Garfield County,” Martin said. “That’s stretching the issue, because we rely upon the staff and its recommendations, and we rely upon the public’s input and listen to all of those people before we make any decision.
“It is not three guys who think they are kings.”
Adds Samson, “I’m not an expert. I don’t have all the answers.”
“Sure, when it comes down to it, 95% of the time we agree on things, because we are like-minded ideologically. We’re conservative people,” Samson said. “The thing that differs among us is our backgrounds and the experiences we bring to the table.”
Martin says he tends to be more “down to earth,” and to “side with the underdog” than his counterparts on the county board.
“I tend to use my heart first, then look at the rules and regulations, and the past history,” he said. “I think I use flexibility a little bit more than the other two.”
Added Samson, “What I don’t want to see is constant fighting. We have disagreements, but you have to learn to work with people.
“Even if you don’t agree with us politically, I think you’d have to agree we work well together and hopefully say we’re doing the right things for the county.”
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