Here’s Rio Blanco County … by the numbers

County Assessor Renae Neilson knows her numbers.
Speaking at an meeting last month of Rio Blanco County Democrats, Neilson, who, by the way, is a Republican, recited figures mostly off the top of her head, with very few notes.
She started off by giving some historical perspective.
“In ‘82, when we had our last oil and gas boom, that’s when we took a big jump (in assessed value) in Rio Blanco County,” Neilson said. “Then, of course, the bust happened, and we just dwindled down. But we’ve been on a steady incline now since about 2003.”
Now, Rio Blanco County’s assessed value is at an all-time high.
“Our value right now is higher than it has ever been in the history of Rio Blanco County,” Neilson said. “We’re at $821 million. Garfield (County) is over a billion, and I don’t know if we will get there or not.”
There’s no secret why Rio Blanco County has such a high assessed value.
“What that is attributed to is our oil and gas industry,” Neilson said. “Oil and gas contributed over 70 percent of the total assessed value. Our gas plants and the pipelines … are completely tied to the oil and gas industry. If you add those in, you will be closer to about 85 percent of our assessed value is coming from the oil and gas industry, in some way or another.”
So, how does that affect property owners?
“What that means to us as the property tax owner is our county has very low mill levies,” Neilson said. “We have one of the lowest mill levies in the state of Colorado.
“A lot of people will tell me (as county assessor) you need to go after the oil and gas companies. You need to make them pay. I’m here to tell you, they are paying. They pay their way. What they do for us, they leave us with a low mill levy. So we’re quite fortunate to have oil and gas. I know sometimes people wonder about that, but it does keep our values high and our mill levies low.”
The company with the highest assessed value is, far and away, Chevron, at $256,805,120 for 2008.
“Chevron is still our No. 1 taxpayer,” Neilson said. “They have been the No. 1 taxpayer, I’m darn sure, for as along I’ve been alive.”
The other top assessed values in the county for 2008 are:
Enterprise Gas, $93,610,520
EnCana Oil and Gas, $80,476,820
ExxonMobil, $55,115,210
Merit Energy, $48,602,710
Williams Production, $29,418,890
Blue Mountain Energy, $23,875,870
Shell Oil and Gas, $12,799,200
Rockies Express Pipeline, $12,651,800
Colorado Interstate Gas Co., $10,580,500
Looking ahead, with the national economy in a free fall, and with oil and gas companies reducing the level of activity in the area, the future of the county’s assessed value is uncertain.
“None of us has a crystal ball, where oil and gas is headed,” Neilson said. “But for this upcoming year, I really believe we will see an increase in value.”
Why? Because of the gas plants, gathering lines and pipelines, plus 2009 is a reappraisal year.
“By law, every odd-numbered year, we have to revalue all property in the county, and we use sales for 18 months prior to that to revalue your homes and your businesses, and property in our county was quite high (during that time),” Neilson said. “So, when you get our notice of value, it will show where your property value was as of June 30, 2008. This is the value that will be used for your taxes payable in 2010.
“I think we’re going to see an increase in value once again, not just on your homes, but also in oil and gas,” Neilson continued. “We had some gas plants built this last year. We had more pipelines go in. We had a lot of gathering lines go in. I think we will see some increase in production, but they don’t report that to us until April. So the value will go up, but whether the value will go up another million (dollars) like it did this year, I really don’t know.”
With the demand for housing, home values in northwest Colorado have bucked the national trend.
“I know nationwide property values have declined, but in northwest Colorado they are not seeing that decline, especially in 2007 and 2008” Neilson said. “This county, especially, we started catching up with our neighboring counties.
“The average sale price of a single-family home in Rio Blanco County is running about $190,000,” Neilson said. “Now keep in mind that is taking your small homes and your bigger homes and putting them all together.”
Neilson had a word of advice for property owners.
“The time to complain to the assessor’s office is in May, when you get that notice of value,” Neilson said. “Give me a call. I love nothing more than to try to explain to you this is how I got the value of your property and give you an estimated tax.
“Now, we can’t give you what the taxes will be, because the assessor’s office does not set the mill levy,” Neilson said. “The County Board of Commissioners approves (the mill levy) in December. But we can give you an estimate (of property tax) in May.”

County Commissioner Ken Parsons of Rangely hadn’t held out much hope the county would ever see money left over from the cleanup of the old Anvil Points Oil Shale research plant in Garfield County.
Last week, it was reported the new administration’s budget proposal would allow the federal government to hold on to the $49 million in leftover money. Rio Blanco County was one of four northwest Colorado counties hoping to use the money to deal with the effects of oil and gas activity.
“I’ve never been optimistic on this one,” Parsons said. “There was so much financial stress at the federal level, even before the recent downturn, that it seemed very remote (the counties would receive any of the money). Given the current state of affairs, I’d place our chances at zero.”

Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, organized a town hall meeting last week in Rifle to discuss the “gas price disparities in Garfield County and the Roaring Fork Valley.”
Panelists included representatives from the state’s Consumer Protection Division, the Petroleum Marketers Association and the Convenience Store Association.

Thanks to the behind-the-scenes efforts of Sen. White, the governor’s office changed its plans to close the Rifle Correctional Facility. David Scherbarth, the associate warden of the facility, happens to be my neighbor. So, on a personal note, I’m glad Dave and his family won’t have to move.
From an economic standpoint, closing the facility and reassigning the employees would have been a big loss for the area. The prison, with its nearly 60 employees, has a payroll of more than $3.2 million.

The Colorado Department of Transportation announced a series of highway projects in northwest Colorado, as part of the federal stimulus package, that includes a five-mile stretch on Highway 13 in Rio Blanco County.
According to a news release from 3rd District Congressman John Salazar, the project is the first phase of a larger project to improve Highway 13 between Meeker and Rifle.
“This funding will help our communities by rebuilding our aging roadways and highways,” Salazar said.

Last Saturday, I attended the Winter Games, but as someone said, it should have been called the Spring Games, because of the spring-like weather. The event was sponsored by the Eastern Rio Blanco Metropolitan Recreation and Park District.
I was “asked” to be a judge for the pie tasting contest at the Winter/Spring Games. OK, I admit, I volunteered to be a judge. What can I say? I love pie.

I attended some of the Friday action at the district basketball tournament last weekend at Meeker High School. It was nice to see such big crowds for the games. Congratulations to all of our local teams that will now advance to regionals.

Spring is still two weeks away, but local golf courses are open.
“I believe they started walking over the weekend and playing,” said Tim Webber, director of the Western Rio Blanco Metropolitan Recreation and Park District, which manages the Rangely Golf Course. “I talked with my golf superintendent this morning and he said that we are ready to let carts out also. “
Rangely Golf Course Manager Chris Hejl said the course is typically open from March to November.
“That is our usual opening and closing, but this is earlier (to open) than we planned,” Hejl said. “With the warm weather, it melted away the snow pretty quick. We did a check (of the course) and found out it was good to go. So everything will pretty much be up and going, except for the snack bar, which will be open next week, because we have to put an order in.”
As many probably know by now, Jim Cook is back as the golf pro at the Meeker Golf Course. All of the greens are cleared of snow, and with last week’s mild weather, Jim told me there were people playing golf, which is the earliest he can remember people teeing it up around here.

My 5-month-old Husky/Lab mix, Layla, and I are taking a dog training class. I’m not sure who has more to learn, her or me. I’m just hoping the class isn’t pass or fail.

Jeff Burkhead is editor of the Herald Times. You may e-mail him at jeff@theheraldtimes.com.