Looking ahead to 2009

Editor’s note: A mix of Rio Blanco County leaders were asked to look ahead to 2009 to identify what they see as the major issues and challenges in their particular field, whether it be education or local government or business. Here are their responses …

Pat Hooker, Rio Blanco County administrator:
Question: Going into a new year, what are the most pressing issues facing the county?
n Sound fiscal budget locally while dealing with the national fiscal problems.
n Fiscal uncertainty surrounding use tax litigation.
n Affordable/attainable housing for county employees — both current and future new hires.
n Severance tax and Federal Mineral Lease (FML) revenues distribution and funding.
n Addressing, prioritizing and funding the various infrastructure needs and projects within the county.

Q: As far as goals, how would you prioritize the county’s to-do list for 2009? Please identify any major projects.
n County Road 5 project.
n Updating the county’s Master Plan and Land Use Regulations (LURs).
n Design, locate site and construct a new justice center for the county.
n Meet state mandates for a new county health office and related operations.
n Managing the ever-increasing office space needs and staffing requirements for the county.
Q: Given the state of the national economy, how do you feel the county is positioned to weather the financial storm?
n Strong energy sector works in the county’s favor.
n Moderate growth rate leaves us with fewer economic issues to deal with than higher growth rate areas.
n Local housing prices below the state median price works in our favor.
n However, shortage of affordable/attainable local housing works to our disadvantage when trying to recruit and hire for local employment opportunities.
n Mortgage default rates remain low in the county compared to other areas within the state and nation. This should work to our advantage when attracting lenders for future housing mortgages.
Q: Do you expect the county to maintain its level of services, again given the downturn in the economy? On the flip side, do you see any services being added?
n Moderate growth rate has allowed the county to maintain our level of services without significant increases in costs or adversely impacting the level of service provided.
n County has met most demands for increased level of services with acceptable levels of personnel overtime and by not having to hire significant numbers of new employees; thus the county is not overstaffed going into this economic slowdown.
n Major energy facilities (wells, processing plants, pipelines, etc.) in the Piceance Basin are just now coming online in terms of assessed values for property taxation purposes. These additional assessment levels will increase the county’s property tax revenues. The county being “de-Bruced” is critical to the county’s financial success and survival.
n Although energy prices are down from historic levels earlier this year, prices are still solid enough to provide for a strong energy economy and resulting tax revenues for the county.
n Potential new services offered by the county: Due to the recently passed legislation at the state level regarding County Health Office requirements, the county will have to formalize our environmental/public health processes. Our monitoring, regulating and inspection practices on operations like Temporary Living Quarters (TLQs), sanitation septic systems, etc. will be reviewed and may have to be changed to meet the new requirements.
Q: Assuming energy activity will continue at the same pace, how do you balance the economic benefits and opportunities of development with concerns about protecting the environment and demands on infrastructure?
A: The county has worked to place the cost of required new infrastructure on new development, when and where practical. We will continue this practice.
The county has provided input on all Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) documents, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) rule-making polices and procedures, and has established county environmental assessments for all large projects in the county.
The county has joined with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in obtaining grant funds to improve water quality monitoring and reporting in the Piceance Basin. In addition, the county has teamed with other governmental agencies to establish water quality testing stations along the White River to obtain baseline water quality information and to monitor development activity located in close proximity to waterways.
The county’s position is to support responsible development of the nation’s energy reserves and resources while protecting and maintaining the local environment and quality of life we all appreciate in the county.
Q: If you were to give a state-of-the-county speech, how would you rate where the county is at economically, culturally, recreationally, etc.?
A: Even with the recent economic slowdown, the county still sits on the edge of unprecedented growth and development.
The economic downturn/slowdown, while potentially very serious, may give the county much-needed breathing room to prepare for infrastructure growth and development. The county road infrastructure continues to take a beating beyond its design and construction capacity.
Additional staffing requirements have placed stress on county offices for adequate space and operational efficiencies.
Housing shortages continue to present challenges for the county in recruiting and hiring new staff. Low foreclosure rates in the county indicate local residents have been responsible with their mortgages contributing to the overall financial health of the county.
The county’s economy remains largely one-dimensional as the energy economy has weakened efforts to diversity the economy. Diversified economic development remains a challenge for the entire county, but one that must be accomplished if the county is going to remain strong during energy industry economic downturns.
Although bonds have been passed for our schools and recreation districts, both of the county’s hospitals are in need of new facilities. In addition, a new justice center is needed in the county. Up-to-date, effective and efficient educational, health care, and law enforcement facilities are critical for our communities and the entire county if we are to continue to enjoy the quality of life we have come to appreciate and expect.
Given the low taxation rate locally and the strong energy economy, Rio Blanco County stands in better stead than most areas nationwide and in Colorado.

Peter Brixius, manager for the town of Rangely:
Q: Given the state of the national economy, how do you feel the town and the area are positioned to weather the financial storm?
A: The town of Rangely, under the direction of the board of trustees, has positioned itself well for the uncertainty that faces much of the country in 2009. The town has been conservative and made wise choices in the past years as it relates to budgeting and project selection.
Q: As far as goals, how would you prioritize the town’s to-do list for 2009? Please identify any major projects.
A: Rangely is looking at two to three primary developments next year, which would create approximately 37 new single family and townhouse properties for sale and rent. We are also just beginning to discuss additional apartment units with a local developer. Overall, we would like to target more retail opportunities, and restaurant prospects are already beginning to evaluate Rangely for early next year.
Q: Do you expect the town to maintain its level of services, again given the downturn in the economy? On the flip side, do you see any services being added?
A: The town’s primary objective is to continue to provide uninterrupted performance as it relates to utility services. Infrastructure improvement projects are planned for street drainage improvements and overlay projects, wastewater treatment enhancements and a water plant infrastructure study. We are also looking to develop ongoing housing strategies once the results of the counties Housing Assessment Study is completed.
Q: If you were to give a state-of-the-town speech, how would you rate where the town is at economically, culturally, recreationally, etc.?
A: Obviously, our biggest concern is the ongoing state of the oil and gas business for the upcoming year and its effect on the employees, their families and the region in which we live. Energy continues to be the most vital industry for our community and has shown that it will be viable through both good and bad markets. Rio Blanco County and the region are certainly looking at some slowing in this sector in 2009. Gas production impact seems to be of the most concern, but at the rate new wells deplete, just to maintain current production will require substantial drilling activity.
Fortunately we have designed our budget to be flexible and allow for shortfalls in revenues by adjusting our capital improvement projects should severance, mineral lease dollars and sales and use tax not meet our projections in 2009.
Working with the citizens of Rangely, we hope to build a cleaner, safer and more productive community each and every year.

Mandi Etheridge, town of Meeker mayor:
Q: Going into a new year, what are the most pressing issues facing the town?
A: Obviously, the growth our town has been experiencing has made it difficult to find affordable housing. Fortunately, the (Community Needs) Task Force is moving forward with a possible housing study to be completed in the spring that will hopefully provide us with the data we need to determine what, if any action needs to be taken with regards to housing in Rio Blanco County.
Q: As far as goals, how would you prioritize the town’s to-do list for 2009? Please identify any major projects.
A: As always, the town staff’s goals are to 1) provide excellent service for our community and 2) be fiscally responsible. Major project goals for 2009 are (in no particular order) 1) Further discussion regarding safety on Market Street, specifically adding a traffic light and new curb, gutter and sidewalks 2) Expanding and upgrading the recycling center and adding an evidence bay for the police department 3) Studying the possibility of expanding Second Street from Market to Garfield over Sulphur Creek 4) Continuing to maintain and upgrade town roads, parks, water facilities and Town Hall 5) And beginning the discussion of what to do with the downtown block and the (current) elementary school.
Q: Given the state of the national economy, how do you feel the town and the area are positioned to weather the financial storm? Do you expect the town to maintain its level of services, again given the downturn in the economy? On the flip side, do you see any services being added?
A: The 2009 budget was approved with conservative figures in mind as far as revenues are concerned. I know that the town will not take on more than it can fiscally handle as far as projects. I don’t foresee any lapse in services that are currently provided to the town, but I can not say that there will be any expanded services offered.
Q: Assuming energy activity will continue at the same pace, how do you balance the economic benefits and opportunities of development with concerns about protecting the environment and demands on infrastructure?
A: That is the $64,000 question. It is a delicate balance, indeed. The economic benefits and opportunities will naturally unfold as industry continues to grow in our area. What local government can control is the development of infrastructure to manage the growth. What the town must keep in mind when facing such decisions is that changes should be made to the benefit of the community as a whole, not just to suit the industry or the individual.
Q: If you were to give a state-of-the-town speech, how would you rate where the town is at economically, culturally, recreationally, etc.
A: I would say Meeker does a very good job of maintaining, even promoting its cultural heritage during a time of growth and change. I believe we are a thriving and evolving and diversifying community, which is essential to future economic stability. I look forward to seeing how Meeker will continue to progress and foster the growth that we are seeing now.

Dwayne Newman, Rangely school superintendent:
Q: Going into a new year, what are the most pressing issues facing the district?
A: I think each year, the most pressing issue for every school district is how to improve student achievement. There are many pieces to this, including keeping focused on our mission, dealing with staff salaries, maintaining discipline, and creating a conservative budget that will fund our priorities. While it is not an every year task, getting our bond projects completed is certainly a priority for 2009. We are here to help students achieve at a high level, and everything we do should be focused on making that happen.
Q: As far as goals, how would you prioritize the district’s to-do list for 2009? Please identify any major projects.
A: Personally I’m very excited about the direction of the district and I really feel like we can attain our vision of becoming the best school district in Colorado. I think everyone in our schools agree that to get there we must increase student achievement, retain and recruit high quality staff, complete our bond projects, and remain accountable to our taxpayers for getting all this done efficiently and within our budget. We are just now starting our process of strategic long-range planning. A consulting group called Focal Point LLC is going to give us their analysis and input, and we have several other data sources that we are going to use to identify our priorities for 2009. We have a very dedicated and enthusiastic staff of professionals here, and I want to get their input before we create specific goals and priorities.
Q: Given the state of the national economy, how do you feel the district is positioned to weather the financial storm?
A: The school board here has done a great job of overseeing the district’s finances. I certainly don’t feel qualified to make any prediction about where the national economy is headed. However, I do know that the board has been conservative in its fiscal management, and that we are financially prepared to continue serving our students and meeting their needs through these tough times. That being said, we certainly cannot plan for every emergency. If some unforeseeable severe change in the national economy did occur, we will need to look for input from our constituents, and possibly guidance from the state and federal education departments to help us ride out the storm.
Q: Do you expect the district to maintain its level of services, again given the downturn in the economy? On the flip side, do you see any services being added?
A: I do expect that we can maintain our current level of services. Before I got here the district went through some really trying times with declining student enrollment and the attendant reduction in funding. We seem to have reached the bottom of that curve, and we are projecting stable to small growth in our student population. If that holds true, then there is no reason to expect any drastic changes to our course offerings.
I would say that any services we might add will be in response to data we get about what our students need to be prepared for life in the 21st century. I heard a prediction the other day that a majority of jobs that will be available in 10 years, haven’t even been thought of yet. (Think about how retail employment has changed with the advent of online shopping.) In this situation, our essential focus must be on preparing students for the unknown. That means they need a strong and complete foundation in communication, language arts, math, science and reasoning, so they are able to adapt to the new, and unknown future. But their education must go further and prepare them to be creative thinkers and problem solvers, so we cannot leave out the arts either. It’s a big challenge, but one that we, the board, staff, administration and our community, must face it we are to do what is best for our kids.
Q: If you were to give a state-of-the-district speech, how would you rate where the district is at as far as staffing, programming, facilities, etc.
A: I think overall our district is in good shape. However, I’d add that “good” is not where we want to stay. Our kids deserve a great school district, and that is our vision. I’ve not had enough time to do an in-depth analysis of our staffing, but, like all school districts, everyone on staff in the organization is really busy.
Our facilities issues are being addressed by the bond-funded renovations, and I think we will be in real good shape in this area for a number of years.
Programmatically, we face some challenges. It has been difficult to find good staff, and then keep them on board given our available resources. Our community expects staff to wear multiple hats, and staff has done so for many years, and done a good job of it. What has changed in the last few years, however, is that the stakes are higher if the students don’t demonstrate achievement gains.
In a few years, the federal government expects 100 percent of our students to be proficient in reading, writing, math and science. To make that happen, our staff is going to have to keep focused on the latest data and research about student achievement, and implement the best instructional practices to support achievement. That means training and retraining, and constant dedication to improvement at every level. Frankly, it is tough to maintain the instructional focus, and sponsor this club, or coach that sport. As a teacher in a small rural district, I lived in that arena. And I know that for many students these other activities are essential and motivating learning experiences. So ultimately our challenge programmatically is to balance all these things in a way that leads to all students learning and achieving at a high level. No small task, but one which I think the board, the building principals, our staff, our students, our parents, and our community can accomplish if we continue working together and working hard.

Margie Joy, president of the Meeker Chamber of Commerce:
Q: Going into a new year, what are the most pressing issues facing the chamber/businesses?
A: The chamber needs to continue to provide a value to its membership. Now more than ever, it is critical to promote our tourism business and help our business owners stay informed about policies and programs that can impact their business. Secondly, the chamber needs to be a “spark plug” to begin conversations and programs that will help us diversify our economic base.
Q: As far as goals, how would you prioritize the chamber’s to-do list for 2009? Please identify any major projects.
A: The Chamber Board of Directors is holding its strategic planning meeting on Jan. 17. Our goal is to identify our program and project list. As part of this process, the chamber sent a survey to all of its members to solicit their input on chamber priorities, etc. Of course, top of the list is hiring an executive director to fill the vacancy left, when Suzan Pelloni steps into the membership position. In February, we will host our annual meeting and roll out the 2009 business plan.
Q: Given the state of the national economy, how do you feel the chamber/local businesses are positioned to weather the financial storm?
A: I think all eyes are watching the national economy, and politics. However, I think our own state and local policies impact our business environment just as much. In many instances, our area will be OK. We will feel slowdowns in some fields. The board’s goal for the chamber to provide our members with information that would help them to weather the storm. For example, could some of our businesses benefit from the Colorado Enterprise Zone Tax Credits?
Q: Do you expect the chamber to maintain its level of services, again given the downturn in the economy? On the flip side, do you see any services being added?
A: The chamber built its 2009 budget on par with 2008. We will not need to cut services. What we are doing is keeping expenses in line with 2008 expenses, but shifting where we apply our dollars. The biggest area is in personnel. We will have one full-time position (executive director) and two part-time positions. This will allow for complete office coverage to address tourism and relocation programs. It will establish a focus on member needs, and develop member programs. And it will allow the new executive director to build collaboration and lay the groundwork for economic diversity.
Q: If you were to give a state-of-the-chamber speech, how would you rate where the chamber is at as far as staffing, programming, facilities, etc.
A: Our chamber has a growing role in our community. We are now 200 members strong. We have the support of the Town Board of Trustees, and the Lodging Board. The past few years the chamber has been getting its “legs” back underneath it. We are there, thanks to a strong board of directors and community support. The chamber is ready to take the next step, and be even more involved in activities that bring our region tourism and build business. We need to take a look at creating primary jobs, and creating an environment that fosters sustainable businesses.