During a tour of the Western Slope last week, U.S. Senator Cory Gardner visited with the Delta County Commissioners about federal issues impacting local residents.
Gardner told the gathering of eight community leaders at the courthouse that he wanted to hear about the "economic rut the American people have been in for the last 20 years."
Gardner then listened attentively and heard a 45-minute presentation by community leaders on a variety of topics ranging from the mining industry's downturn to expensive and counterproductive ag worker housing regulations.
Commissioner Bruce Hovde began the May 5 session by telling Gardner about 700 mining jobs lost from North Fork mines over the past two years. He noted the cumulative multi-year loss to the county budget will total some $2.5 million -- a sum equal to 25 percent of the general fund budget for one year. "We have great concerns," Hovde said. He added that public lands trail closures, the administration's war on coal, and the county's ranking as the "third to fifth poorest" in the state are other issues of concerns.
Commissioner Doug Atchley, a former banker, said community banking needs to be done on the local level, but today's mega banks that are "too big to fail" are centralizing decision making and limiting access to capital that local banks need to expand small business in their communities.
Concerns about federal policies concerning ag workers (housing and H2A visas) were next on the agenda. The federal government's H2A farm worker program is filled with inefficiencies and problems for ag operators, said Nancy Fishering whose family farms in the Uncompahgre Valley. Difficulty getting workers when needed for harvest combined with the cost of new housing regulations are making it hard for family farms to operate, she explained.
Kathy Welt of Mountain Coal/West Elk Mine told Gardner that a long list of regulatory burdens are being placed on coal production by multiple federal agencies. In addition, the industry is attacked by opponents with a constant stream of misinformation fed to the public through mainstream media. On the local level, the loss of mining jobs means loss of community support for youth sports, schools, and for local businesses. Proposed new BLM regulations threaten to further limit the ability of coal companies to operate.
Delta County Memorial Hospital administrator Jason Cleckler said that although DCMH has "done okay" under the Affordable Care Act, the process has been "extremely difficult" and has required considerable "risk taking" by the hospital. Low paying Medicare and Medicaid insurance now cover 75 percent of the hospital's patients, up from 50 percent a short time ago. Payments to providers from the two federal programs are set to be cut. Behavioral care is in a "crisis" from lack of services; hundreds of community hospitals are threatened with closure this year.
However, even as DCMH struggles with federal policy issues and problems in the local economy, it has been rated as one of the 20 best community hospitals in the nation.
Commissioner Mark Roeber cited concerns with federal
lands policies. The public lands management agencies have downgraded local input from the county and other "cooperating agencies," and decisions are increasingly made centrally from Washington D.C. A proposed planning rule by the BLM would redefine "multiple use," a concept at the heart of federal land management for decades and one supported strongly by the county commissioners.
Roeber noted that a public lands policy of "recreation only is, in the long term, not sustainable."
Gardner replied to the concerns that were voiced, telling the group that he was aware of most, is already working on some of them, and that his staff would begin researching ideas he had heard that were new.
Gardner explained that a federal law, the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJ), is used by environmental groups to get payment from the federal government for legal costs of their unending lawsuits against companies like Arch Coal and its West Elk Mine. He said Congress has just adopted a bill requiring the federal government to "disclose settlements" made under the EAJ.
A collaborative effort between the Delta County Sheriff's Office and municipal law enforcement agencies throughout Delta County has resulted in a proposal for a 1 percent sales tax increase to fund public safety. A PowerPoint presentation titled "Back the Badge" is starting to make the rounds at city/town council meetings, service club luncheons and other events.