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Community leaders share responses to visit by Pinedale, Wyo., officials

Editor’s note: Community leaders, elected officials and oil and gas representatives were asked for their responses to information shared last week by visitors from Pinedale, Wyo., who were invited to talk about how they have dealt with the impact of energy development. “That’s why we brought them here,” said Margie Joy, one of the organizers of the idea exchange between the two communities. “They’re experiencing a lot of the things we are.” Local leaders were also asked where they thought the county should go in the future. Here’s a sampling of their responses, in no particular order.

Mandi Etheridge, mayor
of the town of Meeker:
The advice I heard was to plan, communicate, cooperate and consult. More specifically, to work with other agencies within the county — including the oil and gas companies — to plan for the growth, and work to manage the growth so that we, as a county, are better prepared for the future. Also, the folks from Pinedale felt that hiring a professional consultant to help collect and analyze data was essential to having the best information with which to plan.
I feel the most significant issues facing the town right now are housing needs, infrastructure needs and quality of life. There were many great discussions with our Wyoming friends about how to tackle each of those issues with both fiscal responsibility and progressive thinking.
Finally, I think we are ready to start moving our discussions into more action-based themes. Our community planning task force is an excellent vehicle for having those discussions and seeking out steps to take with regards to finding funding for infrastructure needs, collecting housing data and making our voice heard within the Legislature.

Peter Brixius, manager
for the town of Rangely:
1. The collaboration between county and towns for infrastructure development in Sublette County is critical to meeting the demands of the workforce, as well as families, seniors and schoolage children.
2. In addition, having a good working relationship with BLM and a seat at its table in discussions of expansion and improvement of services by ensuring that our communities have what is referred to by the BLM as “cooperating agency status.” Once obtaining that status, then being active in discussions in order to understand what the energy industry growth and needs are going to be in the future.
3. I also found it interesting to understand and hear how environmentally conscious our counterparts in Wyoming are and what industry is doing to mitigate their impact, in terms of wildlife, disruption of the scenic beauty of the area and certainly overall impact from ground and water contaminants. They are doing this through more energy and emission efficient engines at the wellhead and other production sites and through low to no profile well equipment, not visible across the landscape.
4. For the time that I was involved, I did not hear a lot about economic diversification, which for some is a real concern when exploration activities begin to subside. Overall the similarities were striking, including the elimination of all but one landfill for Sublette County, to past town rivalries within the county and between the three communities in Sublette County and how that is pretty much gone today. Concerns about boom/bust are real, but demand for housing and services must be meant in order to satisfy what appears to be a multi-decade activity. We found that in some areas we may be ahead of the curve in the organization of regional, multi-county cooperation, through organizations such as AGNC. The delegation from Sublette County, Wyo., repeatedly made it clear that the invitation to them and the discussions we were having is something they wished they had done early in the process.

Pat Hooker, administrator
for Rio Blanco County:
1. Be proactive to manage the issues created by the energy boom/exploration activity. Don’t wait and try to react to the issues as it will be too late and we’ll be in a crisis management mode. Change is coming … accept it, work with it, plan for it, manage it and take full advantage of it to make our county and communities even better than what we have today.
2. Collect, analyze and use quantitative data to proactively plan, prioritize and solve the needs of the county, towns and special districts. Having baseline data is critical in the process as we’ll be able to measure the level of impacts and the data will be very valuable to us when building our case to meet our funding needs and to potentially impact legislation. Updating that data in a timely fashion as we move forward will be critical.
3. Work collaboratively with all impacted entities, individuals and interested parties to address and solve problems.
4. Don’t hesitate to seek the counsel of outside consultants or specialists. A professional perspective and option on issues is invaluable and will help keep us focused on the issue and potential solutions to the problems.
5. Don’t lose sight of the quality-of-life attributes of our county and communities. They made our county and communities what they are, so work hard to preserve them as we adapt to changes and move forward to meet the demands of progress.
Path Forward:
1. We need to ensure we have processes in place to pro-actively plan for the issues we’re facing today and in the years to come. This includes a quantitative data analysis collection and utilization process. This could very well be something that we’ll look to an outside consultant to help us with. The Associated Government of Northwest Colorado socio-economic study, for example.
2. Develop and implement an effective communication process that will allow us to gather information from and feed back information to all interested parties as we move forward.
3. We need to “agree to disagree,” but keep in mind we’re all working for the common good and welfare of Rio Blanco County, both Rangely and Meeker, the special districts, and the citizens of our community. We’re going to have to prioritize and compromise if we’re going to be successful as we move forward.
Next Steps:
1. Develop and implement both short-term and long-term actions plans to address our needs and impacts. We need the plans in place, then take action to get results. We just can’t sit back and talk about it, we need to get it done. I think the Community Needs Task Force is well positioned to take a leadership role to get this done.
2. To more actively engage the citizens to take a more active, participatory role in getting involved and energized on the issues. The issues facing our county, communities, and special districts are just too important for people to sit back and let “someone else take care of them.” The new proposed elementary school is a perfect example. Not only is the proposed elementary school needed in Meeker, but it’s vital to the quality of life of the community.

Carolyn Tucker, community relations representative for Shell Exploration and Production:
Communicate, plan ahead and continue to communicate.
For something as far-reaching as community planning to be successful, everyone needs a seat at the table to help guide the process. Get to know one another and foster cooperation and collaboration. Allow for healthy discussion and disagreement. Through respect, openness and a shared commitment for problem-solving, the Pinedale group has come up with some pretty innovative ideas.
Another strong recollection was the need to diversify — housing options, business development and understanding cultural diversity.
Moving forward, the Pinedale group suggested developing a strong relationship with senators and congressmen/women, which would definitely help here in Colorado. Finally, the Pinedale folks all seemed to acknowledge that their own personal agendas/local history got in the way of finding the best solutions. Hence their recommendation to get outside consultants to help them with their planning.

Joe Fennessy, former
deputy district attorney:
1. Everyone needs to be educated on state, county, local taxes and what is a tax but not called one. We need some speakers on the topic.
2. My view is we will never get a dime more from Denver in severance money. So the powers-to-be must focus on … thinking outside the box.
3. If we can’t get paid in cash, we need a local in-kind discount. The gas producers are in the business of finding, gathering and producing gas. Hey, our homes, schools, businesses and governments use gas and the price is going up. If a rancher can negotiate a gas pipeline to his home, we can negotiate a private gas line to a “private gas company.”
Here is another radical thought: The county and city buys local mineral rights. We buy land for water shed. Minerals are considered land in Colorado. Then we are a player. Or, the county/city undertakes their own lease. Then they are a player. If you own the gas, you get a check. Are there some county or city lands that have gas under them? Then let’s get this gas.
Why is it important to exchange ideas with others? Because the poet or prophet is never accepted in their own town. Meeker has great ideas, but they are not accepted. We are beaten down.

Bob Omer, chief executive
officer of Pioneers Medical Center and member of the Meeker Town Board:
Most important pieces of advice:
1. Plan now, and define what your needs are (county, town, special districts, etc.).
2. Use consultants with expertise, get reliable quantitative data for planning and decision-making.
3. Involve all stakeholders.
4. Openly share all relevant information, develop effective communication methods.
Most significant issues
1. Planning for population growth.
2. Affordable, available housing options.
3. Diversification of the economy in the long term.
4. Replacing aging infrastructure (schools, hospital, justice center, roads, etc.).
Steps to be taken
1. Reinforce Community Planning Task Force agenda.
2. Provide funding for consultation and needed studies.
3. Share currently available information with all on task force, and through other means.
4. Have county share with task force current working relationship with the BLM.
5. Agree on responsibilities for planning and related funding.
My personal opinion is that the county and our leadership (boards) need to agree on the next steps and make funding available (or secure additional outside funding) to achieve the results stated above.

Sharon Day, administrator
for the town of Meeker:
Important pieces:
1. The need to address housing issues.
2. Fund infrastructure.
3. Better communication
with industry. I liked the idea
of the breakfast meetings between governmental reps and industry.
4. Work with the industry more closely on legislative issues such as returning the mineral taxes the industry pays for impacts to benefit the local areas impacted, to those areas.
I am excited about our local task force and look forward to finding out what the task force decides its focus will be after the meetings (last week).

Jeff Madison, director of Rio Blanco County Planning Department:
1. Organize and plan as early as possible (in part what this effort was about). Big thanks to Margie (Joy) and her efforts.
2. Predict and document socio-economic issues at the start, so that you can use this in the planning process. We have started that with the Associated Government of Northwest Colorado study and will continue with the BLM Resource Management Plan analysis.
3. Get Cooperating Agency status with the BLM process and be involved (we have and are).
4. Do a good job with a master plan early. We have initiated that process this summer, with a target completion date of December 2009.
5. Seek collaborative efforts that include the county, towns, industry, taxing districts.
Overall, most of us came away from the meetings with the idea that we were ahead of where they were when they went into the boom, and that in some ways we are ahead of them even today. I think our biggest challenge is to maintain or expand economic diversity, so that we have something when the gas starts to play out.