by Bill Knowles
TRINIDAD — The second legislative roundtable held in Trinidad Tuesday afternoon took a look at the recent state legislative session with a focus on bills that could bring funding benefits to southern Colorado.
Guest speakers included State Representative Kimmi Lewis, State Senator Larry Crowder, and representatives from the offices of U.S. Representative Ken Buck, U.S. Senator Michael Bennett, and Senator Cory Gardner. Local elected officials included Trinidad Mayor Phil Rico, Las Animas County Commission Chair Mack Louden, commissioner Dean Moltrer, who also acted as Master of Ceremony; and commissioner Luis Lopez.
Speakers from the county and city represented ten sectors ranging from Mount San Rafael Hospital to local and county law enforcement agencies.
Trinidad School District Number One Superintendent Bonnie Aaron spoke about small rural school funding and the issues faced by TSD. She first thanked the state legislators for improving the negative factor which will make its way to the school district in the 2018-2019 school year.
“We are still down $11.2 million for the last decade, money that was taken back after it was given to us. The places the burden of filling that void and gap in funding,” she said.
It was also noted that the inability to raise funds to make up for losses from the negative factor is also hindering the ability of the district to attract qualified teachers and retain the teachers the district already has. The lack of funding lowers the salary schedules at the local level, while the larger districts have funding to recruit and retain teachers. The decline in population due to the closures of coal mines and a collapse in gas prices that forced Pioneer Natural Resources to move its operations to the Permian Basin in Texas have caused a reduction in students attending the local schools has also reduced funding.
She noted that the assessed value in Trinidad can’t compete with the wealthy districts up north. “For example, one mill in Trinidad equals about $115,000, whereas one mill in Adams County district 12 generates $2.5 million.”
Another area she looked at was expenditures for services for the district which are also inflated due to a lack of qualified local vendors. Those services have to be contracted with qualified vendors in Pueblo or Colorado Springs. This increases travel costs.
She also announced the district will put a question to the 2018 ballot for a mill levy override for three specific reasons: one is to build a reserve that will be used to secure a $12 million BEST grant requiring a $4 million match from the school. The second reason stated was for a bond issue to be used for Capital Improvement Projects. The final reason is to be more competitive with the salary schedule.
Lieutenant Mark Wheeler spoke for the Las Animas County Sheriff’s Department. He looked at wages and the turnover of detention officers. With the detention officers making only $13.48 an hour, the turnover rate is about 50%. This is creating an unsafe work environment, with only two officers on duty at a time.
Underfunding is also the stated reason for the lack of training for sheriff’s officers as well as a lack of manpower. With only nine commissioned deputies and sergeants, the ratio of law enforcement to citizens is 1:1,722. According to Lt. Wheeler, this is stretching county law enforcement thin.
Another issue that arises from underfunding is the department’s ability to respond to calls in a timely manner out in the county, especially the ability to respond to the mounting concern of illegal marijuana grows.
Funding was also a subject of concern for the county as well, with the expected loss of $783,000 in property taxes from an adjustment mandated by the Gallagher amendment. Other issues looked at by commissioner Lopez were the Medicaid program and health care for detainees at the jail. The county is spending $144,000 annually for the program at the jail.
He touched briefly on the issue of funds that were being raised from the 1-A ballot issue passed by Las Animas County voters in 2017. The measure was passed as a public safety issue. The sales taxes coming into the county from that ballot measure are greater than the estimated amount of $580,000 the measure called for.
Currently a case involving El Paso County and a similar ballot measure is winding its way through the Colorado Court of Appeals. Before either spending the funds or returning them to the voters, the commission wants to see what the outcome of the case will be. Both the sheriff’s office and the DA’s Office need the funding.
Lewis and Crowder expressed the idea that something was being looked at that would temper the Gallagher amendment. Cathy Garcia from Gardner’s office noted that a bill was making its way through congress that would decouple water from Trinidad Lake from the federal mandate, allowing it to be used on hemp grows.
The hemp industry could see huge jumps in growth if it was able to access adequate water supplies. The industry could provide clothing, building material, and medicines to the U.S. consumer market.