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State Treasurer visits Trinidad

TRINIDAD — Stopping in Las Animas County, during a summer long tour of the stateʼs 64 counties, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton met with county commissioners and some of the county’s staff to discuss concerns and answer questions. “We are covering all 64 counties in Colorado this summer to talk to county commissioners and county treasurers to discuss important economic issues: issues in the counties, issues dealing with the State of Colorado, unfunded mandates, challenges at the county level,” Stapleton said The Colorado health exchange, Connect for Health Colorado, is a big fiscal challenge said Stapleton. Currently the exchange is being audited, and when the State Treasurerʼs office sees the audit, they will find out how much money it is losing and see whatʼs not viable about the exchange. Then it may be decided to switch to the federal healthcare exchange. However the cost of such a move would probably be prohibitive. County budget issues Chair of the Board of County Commissioners Gary Hill opened the Las Animas side of the discussion bluntly stating two numbers: they “are looking at a 65 percent to 70 percent loss of the countyʼs assessed valuation over the last four to five years” largely because of

oil and gas pull outs and depressed natural gas prices. Also the county is losing funds because of medical marijuana. “The county said no to the marijuana thing,” Hill said. However, “We’ve got marijuana growing all over … and that isnʼt all medical either. Itʼs not going to be taxed either and itʼs going to be hitting the streets. And Coloradoʼs losing there too.” Marijuana is constitutional in Colorado and even if grow operations in the county were seized, there would probably be no prosecution. Also the county might have to pay back any damages it caused, so action against illegal growers is viewed as a possible liability. Stapleton said the Treasurerʼs office has been involved with the banking issues around the medical marijuana industry. And, because it is a cash based business, the Department of Revenue has no reliable way to tax it or track tax payments by all of the hundreds of businesses that are operating. “Itʼs the cash based nature of the [medical marijuana] business thatʼs the problem,” Stapleton said. Social services Despite the fact that the county economy is depressed, people are drawing more from social programs. “Social Services is now our biggest program in the county. Itʼs outgrown the county general fund,” said County Administrator Leann Fabec. The Human Services Fund for 2015 is about $10.4 million dollars. Cost of justice Even as revenue shrinks, the cost of justice doesnʼt. The countyʼs 2015 general fund operating budget is about $6.1 million and in 2016 the revenues will shrink the operating budget to about $3 million. The county is looking at operating at 30 cents on the dollar. “Try running a court house and sheriffʼs office on that. Of that amount [$3 million] in the general fund, the Sheriffʼs Department is asking for about $2.2 million,” said Hill. That figure is the amount asked for in the 2015 budget. Infrastructure On infrastructure, the main item Stapleton addressed was roads. According to Stapleton, the issue of raising the fuel tax was ballot tested and failed by 30 points or more. If a tax increase fails and voters fight over bonding, how can a county acquire funds for road maintenance, repair, and new projects? Income drivers The biggest driver for county income has been the fossil fuel industry. Historically Las Animas County had been home to coal, then later coal bed methane. But the market for CBM and natural gas has been heading for a bust cycle as more and more operators have drilled the large plays. “About 270 workers have gone through layoffs by Pioneer. This is a loss to school district enrollments, taxes, and spending into the local economy,” Fabec said. Other big contributers to the countyʼs economy are city and county government, Trinidad State Junior College, and Mount San Rafael Hospital. However, the largest by far is agriculture, and according to Hill, the largest employer percentage wise. Prospects Competition for new jobs and businesses along the southern Front Range is intense as well. Las Animas County is feeding from the same bowl as the others. “We have the railroad, we have I-25, we have water, we have clean air,” Hill said. “Weʼre competing with so many communities for new jobs, even with bigger communities than ours, Pueblo for example. Weʼre out for the same kind of businesses they are, yet they have an economic development war chest we donʼt have, and itʼs funded by a sales tax, about $20 million dollars,” said Fabec. “If you offer people from that [package of incentives] theyʼre going to go there [Pueblo]. We donʼt have that,” said Hill. “Then you lose your work force to bigger money, better jobs.”