Sunday, July 24, 2016

1% Sales Tax from 2007... How's that working out?

In November of 2007, Elbert County residents passed a 1% sales tax for road improvements.  I was writing a column for the Elbert County News at the time and as I researched my articles, I saw a great deal of controversy on this issue.  Nobody was defending the conditions of the roads at that time because honestly,  they were in abysmal shape. There was an economic downturn in full stride, the likes we had not seen in this country since the Great Depression. Our prospects looked pretty dim.

At first, I took some flak from some of my conservative friends for defending the notion of a sales tax hike in my column. But the measure narrowly passed because there was a compelling argument being made by some prominent republicans about the need for road maintenance and new pavement.  The chip seal roads the county was experimenting with at the time were failing as fast as they were being installed, and it was clear to a majority of residents that new asphalt paving was needed. 

My continuing theme in these blogs points out my belief that a large segment of people here in Elbert must actually be comfortable with deception. This is clearly demonstrated by the passage of this sales tax initiative in November of 2007.  Tax money for roads began coming in during the early months of 2008.  Initially, the money was put to use as it was intended.  Much needed funding began to fill the coffers in the road and bridge department and repairs began. Elbert County then began laying the first new pavement it had in years, completing the road to the town of Elbert (CR 17/21 from CR 114 up to CR 106 as well as CR 106 east from that juncture to Elbert Rd).  The shared pavement between Elbert County and Arapahoe County on the north received much needed attention as did Delbert Road that is shared between Elbert County and Douglas County.  It seemed for all intents and purposes that Elbert County was working hard to improve its roads.

Unfortunately, the county was still struggling with rising budgetary costs.  The loans that were initially secured to restore, expand and improve  the Justice Center were, in my opinion, written in such a manner that they exploited the county’s weakened financial position. It became clear that the county would have to get a different lender if it were to ever get itself out of the financial hole  in which it found itself.  

The answer came in the form of a stagecoach.  Elbert County entered into a refinance with Wells Fargo Bank.  While Wells Fargo was by far a better financial institution for us to be doing business with than George K. Baum.  But Wells Fargo does not mess around and has requirements that are stringent, including keeping so much capital  on hand in the county bank account.

The aforementioned sales tax is still being collected.  Unfortunately, almost none of it is being spent on Elbert County’s roads.  Let that sink in for just a minute.  The money for road repairs is being collected, but it is not being used for road improvement, even though it was presented that way to the voting public in 2007.  

In the words of the great musician and songwriter, Tom Waits, “The large print giveth and the small print taketh away.”  You see, when you closely read the proposed tax hike, it is clear that it was purposefully written to allow the county to use the money for other purposes, such as holding on to it so that the county has money in its bank account and could use it to collateralize more loans.

I am in no way trying to say that Wells Fargo is responsible for what came next in the continuing saga of what happened to the 1% sales tax that was supposed to be exclusively earmarked for road improvements.  No, the reason the money is not being used for roads is because our Elbert County manager, Ed Ehmann, believes that holding on to this money is best thing for the county at this point in time. Incurring more debt on loans because we can prove we have a cash reserve on hand is a better use for road taxes than for…um, I don’t know, roads?

Let me go on record as saying that I believe county officials when they say the language of the 2007 tax initiative allows them to use the money in this manner. There is likely nothing illegal about what Ed  and the BOCC are doing with this tax money.  But what I will say is that I believe most people do not have the first clue about any of this and if they did, they might be a tad upset.  Unbelievably, there are quite a few people who are working in the county government with whom I have broached this subject and they do not seem to care a whit about the decision.  In fact, a couple have suggested that the rank and file Elbertonians are not only  aware of the practice, but are okay with it.  If that is in fact a true statement, then it is clearly a case of “mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur.” The people would only be okay with this if they wanted to be deceived.  I may be a little old-fashioned, but I believe if you pay a tax which has been earmarked for road repairs, then that is exactly where it should go.  What do you think?

[In 2007, Elbert County voters approved a 1% sales tax which "shall be deposited in a special road and bridge capital and operating expenditures fund and applied for the purpose of funding road and bridge capital and operating expenditures..." (per resolution 07-75, Elbert County)]

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Possibilities of Agate

When you are looking for a possible solution, try walking through a gate.

The town of Gebhard, Colorado was formally founded by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1881 complete with a United States Post Office. A year later the town changed its name to Agate. There was already a community of cattle ranchers in the area prior to the rails being laid by the UPRR.  According to local legend, there was a distinctive wooden gate at that location with an  “A” bracing on it with which to make it sturdy.  Some local historians insist that gate is where the town derived the name it carries today. Still, others insist it got its name from the colorful agate stones that were found in the area.

Agate is situated in the northeast corner of Elbert County on I-70 less than twenty miles from the town of Limon, Colorado and shows little today in the way of economic prowess. With its shuttered buildings and decaying infrastructure, one would hardly guess that Agate might hold the key to adding much needed tax revenues into the depleted Elbert County coffers. The common perception in our county is that if you want to grow a tax base in Elbert County, it will have to come from the western edge of the county and radiate from Elizabeth to the east.  “Build houses and they will come,” has always been the county motto without addressing the problem that there is nowhere for these new residents to go to work. 

The motto for this blog is,  “mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur.”  It suggests that many people want to be deceived because they want the world to fit their preconceived notions, so let them be deceived.  To me, Agate, Colorado represents a breaking away from the status quo approach to growing a county economy. If you do an honest assessment on places where commerce might gain a foothold in our county, I believe it is most appropriate to put Agate at the top of that list.  We all have heard the age-old question, “What are the three most important things in real estate?”  The answer is… drumroll please, “Location, location, location!”

Agate, Colorado is on a major Interstate Highway, I-70.  If you wanted to ship goods or receive goods at a new manufacturing plant, you do not need to be a transportation genius to see that trucks will have better access to your business from I-70 than they would from a a smaller artery like Singing Hills Road. And not a single foot of travel would be necessary on an unpaved surface!  

There is also the fact that Agate is very close to the spots where both Colorado State Highways 86 and 24 join I-70,  giving both a central path through to the core part of Elbert County and a bypass to I-25 and the Colorado Springs area.  Again, all of this has trucks traveling on paved roads. The highway transportation issues of a fledgling manufacturing business could not be better served anywhere else in the county than in Agate. 

If you are a manufacturer, right-of-entry to a rail line is an absolute must.  Agate, Colorado is the only area in Elbert County where a business can gain direct access to any major railroad lines.  No other populated area, incorporated or otherwise in Elbert County, can boast that commercial benefit.  On paper at least, this puts Agate on a list as one of the most desirable places to court new businesses.  

An example might be a plant dedicated to making wood pellet fuel which decides to build its business in Agate.  I-70 has trucks coming out of the mountain that could be delivering harvested beetle kill pine trees.  The wood could be processed and loaded on rail cars and sent to either coast via the railroad companies with fewer needs to load and reload cargo.

There is an airport facility in Limon, Colorado. Closer than Denver or Colorado Springs, a manufacturer could use this airport  facility for quick shipments of parts or even shuttling business associates to and from the manufacturing site.  You cannot say the same for Elizabeth or Kiowa.

Sure, there will be some that read this blog post and say that the notion of building a manufacturing base in Agate, Colorado is pure folly.  But if you are being honest with yourself, this endeavor would not come  without some very important merits.  Land is relatively inexpensive in Eastern Elbert County.  There are also Enterprise Zone opportunities available in the Agate area. The Office of Economic Development & International Trade writes on their website, 

“The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) works with statewide partners to create a positive business climate that encourages dynamic economic development and sustainable job growth. Under the leadership of Governor John Hickenlooper, we strive to advance the state's economy through financial and technical assistance in support of local and regional economic development activities throughout Colorado.”

The way out of any financial downturn is to take a step back and evaluate what new possibilities are  both necessary and possible.  Would it be worth it to our county’s government, in cooperation with its Chamber of Commerce, to try and invite, encourage and embrace new businesses and manufacturing into the county, specifically in Agate?  This author believes that it would.  You might disagree, but at least it is a proposal that is an example of thinking outside of the box.  What do you think?  

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A Case Made For Tourism

A Case Made for Elbert County Tourism

Bayou Gulch Regional Park and TrailColumbine Open Space and Trail,Dawson Butte Open Space and TrailGlendale Farm Open Space and Trail, Greenland Open Space TrailHidden Mesa TrailLincoln Mountain Open Space TrailSharptail Ridge TrailSpruce Meadows Trail and Spruce Mountain Trail are all open space areas in neighboring Douglas County. I encourage you to open the links I have provided  to you so that you can see these amazingly beautiful day tourism areas.  As a landscape and wildlife photographer for several online web sites, I frequent Douglas County with some regularity during the Spring, Summer and Fall seasons.  I also am a person who has always enjoyed nature walks and bicycle trail riding. 

Douglas County is beautiful, but no more so than our home county of Elbert.  I also want to encourage you to view a local photography site, Elbert County Beauty and History so that you can compare the wildlife and scenery between the two counties.  We share, particularly around the towns of Elizabeth, Elbert and Kiowa, a very similar topography with Douglas County.  I would argue that Elbert County has an even wider array of wildlife due to fewer people living here.  (Douglas County has an area of 840 square miles with a population rate of 340 people per square miles. In contrast, Elbert County has 1850 square miles with an average of 12.5 people per square miles.)

I find it somewhat amazing,that Elbert County, arguably one of the most equestrian-based counties in Colorado, has almost no  trails for riding unless they are privately owned.  Elbert County is home to one of the most beautiful Boy Scout Ranches in America, but hiking on anything other than privately owned land is a virtual impossibility.  When I go out to take pictures around here, I have to obtain permission from private individual landowners in order to access historical sights or any one of hundreds of our scenic wonders.  

By way of example, when I first moved here nineteen years ago, I was able to take panoramic pictures of the Bijou Basin from several old platted roads along its rim.  It is such an amazing view, that it was commented on by the likes Major Long in the1820’s and Captain  John C. Fremont in the 1840’s. The view rivals any painted by the great German born American painter Albert Bierstadt.  Yet today, this view has  become a luxury afforded to only a very few individual land owners because access is almost entirely denied to the public. The old roads along the edges of the Bijou Basin no longer are county maintained and have been fenced for agricultural purposes for many years.

On two recent occasions, I have visited Douglas County to use their open space trail system.  It was amazing to me that both times, the parking lots at many of the listed trailheads were filled to capacity. It is that way on every weekend and often the same traffic can be anticipated on weekdays.  What I also noticed was that the areas were clean and well maintained.  The trash cans around the picnic tables were generally filled with the remnants of family outings.  What that says to me is that these places bring people and their families. They are spending money for snacks and beverages and that these supplies are likely purchased in locally owned markets.  It represents vibrancy to local merchants who sell gas, snacks, tack and tourist memorabilia.

All too often, when the subject of how we bring commerce to Elbert County comes up, along with the discussion about the resulting financial rewards it might bring, our elected officials push the idea to the back burner. It seems the trend is to look for the “home run”  types of project.  Over the years I have heard some call for factories, housing developments, unlimited fracking, water sales, and even race tracks to bring the money into Elbert County.  But with these types of development dreams comes the inevitable question that always raises its ugly head, “If these big ideas are so good, then why haven’t these visions of instant prosperity  ever reached fruition?”

The truth is complicated but fixable.  There is little to no exposure to all Elbert County has to offer.  There is very little transportation infrastructure in terms of roads and bridges.  Almost every residential structure is on well and septic.  We are a closely knit group of agricultural families on one hand coupled with a rapidly growing segment of metropolitan commuters trying to escape the schools, crime and overpopulation associated with the two major metropolitan areas located to our west.

If the majority of people in Elbert County truly want a better source of income via growth then it will require cooperation from everybody. Some residents would resist this notion of tourism fiercely while others would openly embrace it.  There are huge questions to be answered before any of this type of growth could be realized.  

The first step is to ask if our local landowners wish to be participate in partnerships with our county government to form a system of open space trails and local tourism similar to those in Douglas County. If there is interest, the next step is to find out what kinds of incentives might entice large land owners like John Malone into this type of growth. The third step would be to ask county residents if they would be okay with paying for a cost/benefit analysis  being  done that could potentially answer the questions that would inevitably arise.  

This is not fantasy here.  Douglas, Jefferson and El Paso counties have all undertaken such prudent growth.  They did not do it capriciously to essentially waste tax payers’ hard earned money.  Would it be worth our while to approach our neighboring counties and ask them how they feel about open space and what the pros and cons of this concept are? 

Of course, I have a selfish desire to gain more access to the beauty of Elbert County without having to go to such lengths to receive the necessary permission.  But make no mistake about it, small towns make huge money when people visit. When Peaceful Valley hosts a jamboree the local businesses can make more on a single weekend than they can in a month. The upside for a photographer such as myself is that people generally take care to follow the rules in these areas and the public areas remain pristine.   Well maintained trails draw return crowds.  It would also give many more options to those horse owners who are not fortunate enough to live in a development with equestrian trails.

In keeping with the tradition of this blog’s theme, “mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur, I believe we deceive ourselves when we do not recognize the potential of our local natural beauty.  This notion might not bring hundreds of jobs, but it could bring more people into Elbert County who might want to live here and perhaps even start businesses that complement our rural lifestyle.  I believe it is worthy of a discussion.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Should we be discussing water in Elbert County?

The snowpack of the Rocky Mountains here in Colorado, provides much of the American West with precious, clean water.  The great irony of the water here is that for all of its abundance, Colorado does not get to use very much of the water that originates within its boundaries.  The rights to the water were negotiated away many years ago by politicians. These men lacked the foresight to see that fresh water would one day be more valuable than almost any natural resource. They believed there was so much water that no matter how the country grew, there would always be more than enough to satisfy the requirements of the people.  The mere suggestion that Colorado would one day be home to millions of permanent residents would have almost assuredly garnered you the moniker, lunatic!

It used to be that when you bought land in rural Colorado it was based on the section model. The Public Land Survey system here in the United States was based on the concept of a section of land. A section of land is a square mile.  A section contains 640 acres.  Thirty-six sections made a township for purposes of mapping the country on a rectangular grid. The family farm of old was almost always based on a 40 acre parcel, or a sixteenth of a section. To this very day, a domestic well in Colorado gets one acre foot of water per 40 acres. If, for example, a person owned 80 acres of land, they would be entitled to two acre feet of domestic water.

Unfortunately for those of us who live in Elbert County, only one other county in the state has less water in terms of lakes and ponds. Phillips County, in the northeast corner of Colorado  which only has 688 square miles of land within its boundaries has only .11 square miles of surface water.  Elbert comes in second boasting just .17 square miles of surface water, but we are three times the size of Phillips County with 1,851 square miles.  What that means is that our only source of water to speak of comes from groundwater wells.  

All of that said, Elbert County sits over a set of five nested aquifers that comprise the Denver Bedrock Aquifer System.  The Division of Water Resources have given the Denver Bedrock Aquifer System a special designation.  Our water is classified as Not nontributary ground water. According to the Colorado Division of Water Resources, “Not nontributary ground Water means ground water located within those portions of the Dawson, Denver, Arapahoe, and Laramie-Fox Hills aquifer that are outside the boundaries of any designated ground water basin in existence on January 1, 1985, the withdrawal of which will, within one hundred years, deplete the flow of a natural stream, including a natural stream as defined in sections 37-82-101 (2) and 37-92-102 (1) (b), at an annual rate of greater than one-tenth of one percent of the annual rate of withdrawal.” 

The Denver Bedrock Aquifer system is not able to recharge itself at a rate that will keep up with the rate with which we are depleting it.  It has a finite amount of water and it will go dry in a period of time that the state hoped would extend over a 100 year period of time.  But it is actually a guessing game as to how much water is actually in the five aquifers.  To make matters worse, the CDWR (Colorado Division of Water Resources) did not change its model of water allotment for domestic wells to reflect actual demand and as a result, the upper two aquifers of the Denver Bedrock Aquifer System are over-allocated by a significant amount.

Remember from the beginning of the article, it used to be that there was an acre foot of water per 40 acres.  But Elbert County has no water infrastructure and so as development began to radically increase from 1985 on until the present day, when a developer built higher density sites (let’s say five acre parcels) the DWR gave each five acre parcel an acre foot of water.  That means that potentially eight times as much water or more was being drawn from the top two Dawson aquifers as was being allowed when the average parcel was 40 acres.  Three decades later, these top two aquifers have been so badly over allocated, some water engineers are saying these water sources cannot produce the actual amounts that have been promised.  Today, when you try to actually adjudicate your water rights, the CDWR is actually denying adjudication in some cases or giving fractional amounts of what was given just a couple of years ago.  

The price of digging a well hundreds of feet deeper into the Denver Aquifer layer to get domestic water is becoming very expensive.  Also, the deeper you go to get water, the more brackish it becomes.  We have no other options in Elbert County but to try and exert all pressure to insure the conservation and accurate allotment of these precious water resources.  

None of the things discussed so far actually address the most potentially dangerous situation that is looming on the immediate horizon… water speculation.

Water has been sold to the Metropolitan Denver area to fill reservoirs for staggering amounts. Water has been sold for more than $10,000 per acre foot. 

That means in the case, of  landowners, many of whom I know, that own 60 acre parcels with adjudicated  water rights, could could sell their water (100 acre feet of water per year on average) for $1,000,000 per year at that price. That amount will surely rise by leaps and bounds in the not too distant future! Now before you go crazy thinking that your ship has arrived, remember that there is no water infrastructure, no pipelines, etc. That is where developers step up and offer to buy your water at greatly reduced prices because they will be responsible for building said infrastructure and they will also point out that they will need to make enough money to remain solvent.

Remember again, that once a not nontributary water resource is depleted it is gone forever. Once depleted you have no legal recourse to regain your water.  You will not have any water… just a pipeline and a dry well.  Who do you think will be there to sell you water at prices that are even more exorbitant than the $10,000 per acre foot price you were paid that began this fantasy of quick riches?  If you guessed the developers, you would be correct.

Water rights, water districts and water laws are very confusing and very important.  I am including a state precipitation map for Elbert County.  We are generally very arid except the area around the Palmer Divide.  In my humble opinion there needs to be a greater focus in Elbert County on just who has rights to the water and who stands to profit from the depletion of the Denver Bedrock Aquifers.  This education should be a major topic of discussion by our elected officials in meetings with the public.  We know that shadowy groups representing developers and water districts have been exerting pressure on the BOCC to allow new water districts to be formed to gain control over unadjudicated water rights.  Why are we hearing so little as to what our water future in Elbert County is going to look like.  

Is this  just another case mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur?  Is this one of those things that is just better left to the likes of former commissioner Kurt Schlegel and the developers who stand to make a fortune if we abdicate our choice to protect the finite water resources of Elbert County?