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Economic challenges aired at forum

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Elected officials and senior staff from around the county met for a municipal quarterly in Paonia on April 29.

Economic challenges to individuals, schools and local governments from coal mine layoffs and closures were foremost on officials' minds. Other initiatives like broadband, solar energy, emergency management and a river corridor study were also highlighted during the session.

The top economic issue discussed at the meeting was the impact of the North Fork coal industry's closures and layoffs.

Several different estimates for the economic loss to the county were offered during the gathering of local officials, the people who have the best knowledge next to the mines themselves. One indication of the lost economic value was provided by a former payroll clerk at one of the mines who said she processed $500,000 in paychecks every two weeks.

Another estimate valued 600 lost mine jobs at $80,000 average annual pay, resulting in a $48 million annual loss to the local economy.

A third estimate counted peak mine employment at about 1,200 workers, at an average wage (including benefits) of $100,000 per year. That calculates to a $70 million direct loss to the economy from 700 lost jobs.

Associated job losses, including mine service businesses and the railroads, have also occurred.

A local mining executive said that in the year 2000 there were nine unit trains per day loading and transporting North Fork coal. Now, there are two trains per week taking coal from the remaining mine -- the West Elk.

Representatives from Crawford said their town government will have to request a hike in property tax there "just to keep going" because of financial impacts from the mine closures.

A Paonia town official said that they will see a $100,000 decline next year from a general fund of $650,000 -- a more than 15 percent hit --because of lost revenues from state severance taxes and federal minerals leasing income.

Other local governments are in the same boat when it comes to severance tax and minerals leasing income. And those economic impacts are not isolated in Delta County, explained Elyse Ackerman, regional manager with the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. She described the picture as "not good, not positive." DOLA's direct payments program to local governments from the two revenue sources will decline by 70 percent next year, Ackerman said.

"We urge you to budget conservatively," she told the local officials.

In addition, the revenue from energy companies that funds DOLA's energy assistance impact grants will be down from a "historic high" of $35 million per funding cycle to a "historic average" $20 million -- a decline of almost 60 percent. Competition by local governments for DOLA grant funding "will be a little cuthroat for a year or so," she said.

DOLA's energy assistance impact grant awards will be capped at $1 million, half the previous maximum of $2 million.

School superintendent Caryn Gibson attributed declining enrollment to the mine layoffs. Enrollments have declined in the school district every year for the last seven years, Gibson said.

The school district, which receives operating funds from the state based on student enrollment, had lost 111 students as of last Oct. 15. Gibson said the district expects to be down another 100 student enrollments in the next school year. The school board will wait and see the actual numbers before deciding if and how they may impact the budget.

Gibson said the school district is "not deficit spending and is financially strong." But changes in demographics and income levels in the county mean that 60 percent of the district's students now meet the definition for "at risk."

Delta County Memorial Hospital's chief clinical officer Jody Roeber reported that births at the hospital are in decline. There is also good news from the hospital which is opening a new clinic and which was recently honored with a national service and quality award.

For the "last mine standing" in the North Fork Valley, proposed new regulations from the Bureau of Land Management are adding to the challenges of markets, federal anti-fossil fuels policy, legal opponents, court setbacks and a bankruptcy reorganization.

Kathy Welt, environmental engineer III at West Elk Mine, said that her company will be asking for community support when BLM conducts "listening sessions" on raising coal leasing and royalty payments.

"BLM 'listening sessions' on the need for coal leasing and royalty increases were conducted [in Denver] last fall. As a result, additional hearings on further federal rulemaking will be conducted in Grand Junction on June 23. West Elk would like continued community support for that issue/session," Welt said.

The process of reinstating the North Fork Coal Mining Exclusion to the Colorado Roadless Rule is moving forward in the Forest Service. The reinstatement is needed to enable West Elk to increase its minable coal lease area and continue operating beyond currently licensed reserves.

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