First was the Jan. 23 public meeting between the Meeker School District and district parents and concerned citizens on how to deal with a $1 million-plus budget shortfall.
About 80 people showed up to hear from Superintendent Mark Meyer how the shortfall came about and then a plea from Meyer and the board that members of the community give feedback to the board on how they might deal with the shortfall.
Many great suggestions were brought forth and everyone’s deep concern was obvious. It seems that each person who spoke had another unique way to deal with the shortfall in at least a small way; others in a more broad manner.
Some of the ideas included cutting extra-curricular activities, and that was followed up by pleas from parents not to cut those activities.
One person brought up revisiting the mill levy election that failed in November, but that can’t be done for two years.
One person suggested not purchasing computers for a while, stressing that having live teachers in the classroom is more important than the many computers the schools use. That brought arguments that the students need to keep up on computer technology and that computers can’t be eliminated.
Another suggestion was that smaller buses be used when possible and that those who go to away games or other competitions pay a portion of the cost — while having parent volunteers drive the buses and save the cost of drivers.
Returning to a four-day school week was suggested, but Meyer pointed out that the schools are being used by many factions in the community on Fridays and Saturdays, and there are athletic games on those days as well.
Charging more for community use of the facilities was a suggestion, and so was cutting extra-curricular activities by the same person who didn’t want to see art or music cut just because they don’t have the largest enrollments.
Another suggestion was to cut the tax levies of other special districts in the county or to have them “contribute” voluntarily to school district coffers.
Meyer said the county can’t just cut the funds going to other districts and have them redistributed, and he pointed out that if they would volunteer funds it would be great and most welcome but that realigning the levies would probably take action by the Colorado State Legislature with major involvement of the Rio Blanco County commissioners.
There were some viable suggestions presented, and there were some somewhat wacky ideas, but MSD Board President Bill deVergie, Meyer and the district board members vowed to look at each and every one and to give all ideas some consideration.
The two things everyone agreed on were that a long-term solution needs to be found and that, hopefully, the Legislature will lead the way with new formulas; and secondly, that no one wanted to see a reduction in the teaching staffs because, as several people said, “we have a great group of teachers now, and there aren’t many districts in which teachers dig so deep into their own pockets because they care so much for their students.
Something will need to be done, and it would great if the Legislature would do what it should. But to the district board members and administrators, I would say good luck; you have some tough decisions ahead of you.
The next public forum was the Jan. 25 economic development forum held at the Meeker Hotel and hosted by the new group, the Rio Blanco Citizens for Economic Development. Approximately 40 persons showed up to hear ideas and offer ideas regarding bringing more tourism or development dollars to the Meeker area.
The special guest at the meeting was Kelli Hepler, the agri-tourism director for Delta County, who pointed out the successes that area has had with increasing the number of filled beds in Delta, making that county “a place where people want to stop.”
Heplerf said Delta suffers because it has Aspen on one side and Telluride on the other and that most people just motor on through between the two destinations.
“We took stock of what we had to offer and we discovered we had vineyards, mines, ranches/farms, wildlife and historic properties to promote, and we have done a pretty good job at slowing people down and having them stop for a day or two,” she said. “They check out mainly our vineyards but also to visit the mines and ranches and farms because these are activities that many people on the Front Range have never seen.”
She said that with $6,000 from the county and some state funding, all the groups got together and everyone found and offered cooperation at every turn.
The vineyards offered tours and tastings, the mines started giving tours, the ranches and farms invited folks out for a day or two to see what goes on. Groups decided to promote the presence of the wildlife and there were many historical buildings in the area, so there were lots of activities that could captivate visitors for a day or two and the hotels saw an increase in bed occupancies.
“One of the most enjoyable activities was sending folks from the Front Range or other big cities out to the farm and ranches,” Hepler said. “You’d be surprised at how many people don’t know where a ribeye steak really comes from or where the lettuce or tomatoes or other crops originate. Some people just thought they showed up at the grocery stores by magic. It has been fun to educate those folks and show them all that is involved.”
Hepler said Meeker needs to sit down with all its factions and do an inventory of area offerings and set about promoting those things for people passing through and get the word out across the state what is available in the area.
“You have some gorgeous mountains where people would love to camp and go hiking; you have some of the best fishing in the state and probably the best all-around hunting,” she said. “You have some fabulous historic buildings that state history fans would love to see and visit and you have many farms and ranches that could be pulled into the discussion”
Hepler and Gary Zellers, president of and speaking on behalf of the Meeker Arts and Cultural Committee (MACC), pointed out that what is needed most is some individual or some group to jump up and take over the mission.
Several times it was mentioned that Katelin Cook, the former executive director of the Meeker Chamber of Commerce who was recently hired as Rio Blanco County economic development director, might play a major role in uniting all groups in the county interested in economic development and pull them under one umbrella so as not to duplicate efforts.
“You have so very much to offer to the daily or short-term and even long-term visitors to the area that it is a shame it isn’t organized now,” Hepler said. “You have a wonderful museum, many historic buildings, quite a bit of Colorado history is tied to this area of the state and you have the potential for several activities and outdoor and off-road adventures.
“Rio Blanco County would be a natural for promotion on the Front Range as a terrific place to get away to, a place that offers great outdoor activities and a great place to relax and take things a little bit slower for a couple of days.”
And last of the public meetings was Saturday’s Rio Blanco Stockgrowers’ annual meeting, dinner and dance.
Oftentimes, where there is something like this going on — a meeting of a group with a single interest like ranching, I will run in, get a photograph and be on my way to the next assignment.
On Saturday, I arrived at the beginning of the public portion of the membership meeting about 1:30 p.m. and I left at 4:15 p.m. after a throughly interesting and enthralling meeting.
All the major players were present.
Bill Ekstrom, the county’s CSU Extension Service Agent, offered an oversight of the issues relevant to the area and gave an interesting update on what the service does, can do and would like to do.
He was followed by representatives of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and each addressed pertinent issues facing ranchers and farmers and pretty much all of agriculture in Northwest Colorado.
Last week’s visit by Interior Secretary Jewell to Craig was termed a success as she was given first-hand experience seeing what is being done locally to keep the sage grouse or greater sage grouse species from being listed as an endangered species.
It was explained to her, it seems, the importance to the farmers and ranchers to continue to grow or graze in this part of the state. It was explained to her the intertwined web between agriculture, hunting, water rights, grazing, etc., and that if any one of those entities is hurt, then all are hurt, and there may still be no advancement for the sage grouse or greater sage grouse because cutting back on public use won’t eliminate or decrease the numbers of predators in the area, where predation is probably the No. 1 cause of problems for the sage grouse.
It was also explained that grazing leases are sometimes threatened, that water rights are under attack from several directions and that the increased regulations brought on by the state and the feds are all adding up to make it tougher on smaller operations, like most in Rio Blanco County, to stay in businesses.
Yet, the stockgrowers seem ready to trod on and do what they have to do to stay in business. Certainly there is concern and frustration, but it is up to all factions of agriculture like the stock growers to educate our state and our nation’s lawmakers to the reality of farming and ranching.
When more people understand where their food comes from, the regulations these folks in agriculture must deal with and how ridiculous some of those regulations are.
When more people know what goes into getting a great ribeye steak from the ranch to the table and how many people in between are involved in raising the price of that steak up to what it is at the grocery store…
When more people understand the labor, the costs and the methods of getting lettuce, carrots, beans, etc., from the ground to the table, the more appreciation there will be for the tough work of the ranchers and farmers and then, perhaps, by removing so many levels of the the middle man, the fun and highly lucrative days of farming and ranching will return without forcing outrageously high costs onto the consumer.