If attendance at the Tuesday evening, Jan.8 Chaffee County Public forum on how to implement ballot measure 1A is any indication, this county is passionate about protecting the county’s natural resources. That passion was evident in the crowd who gathered at the Fair Grounds to listen to the plan the county calls “Chaffee Common Ground.”
Cindy Williams, who helped lead the Envision Chaffee County effort to formulate the ballot measure language, presented the county’s research and findings on how other counties have executed on conservation programs. Dozens of county residents then offered questions and suggestions on how this county should implementation the sales tax which passed in the November General Election.
“I want to thank the critics who spoke up against the measure, our process, the fact there are issues not adequately addressed – those were great comments, taken to heart,” said Chaffee County Chair Greg Felt. He went on to point out that those comments helped the county clarify the ballot 1A language, finalized as: “strengthening forest health, conserving and supporting working ranches and farms and rural landscapes and managing the impacts of growth.”
The new Chaffee County 0.25 cent sales tax (equal to two and one-half cents on a ten-dollar purchase) is projected to raise one million dollars annually, to be divided among four funds: 25 percent for forest health, 25 percent for working lands, and five percent for managing recreational growth impacts, with 45 percent set aside as a discretionary fund that could be directed to any of the areas based upon need and opportunity.
Ten counties were interviewed across Colorado (including Arapahoe, Eagle, Summit and Grand counties), Arizona and Oregon, as well as the Gates Family Foundation. While none of them run conservation funds quite as complex as the effort just passed by Chaffee County, Williams said there are many things that could guide efforts here. The counties represented a combination of open space and trails programs managed by staff, open space and trails programs managed by a grant process, or wildfire mitigation programs managed through partnerships and collaboratives.
Williams went over their key success factors, including that every entity established a small and active citizen advisory council for use of funds, agreed upon overall program goals, philosophy and team norms, got county employees and contract staff involved, and set up the grant criteria, rating and ranking grant requests using a citizen advisory board.
The structure envisioned by the county is tiered, with a base of subject matter experts and existing boards that can inform the planning.
“When we say subject matter experts, we don’t mean PhD s,” said Commissioner Keith Baker. “We mean people with a passion for these things. The other thing I am determined must be applied is what I call reasonable geographic distribution … We want to foster community development and growth within the whole county.”
Locally, the Chaffee County Marijuana Excise Tax Advisory Board offers a citizen advisory model. The entire presentation (titled Chaffee Common Ground) is available at http://chaffeecounty.org/County-and-Community-News .
Residents comments were respectful and supportive, and some were cautionary.
“There has to be lots of brain power going into the scoring matrix,” said former Buena vista Mayor Joel Benson. “Within that (we need) special attention to water rights in the west – keeping water rights in the valley. Be specific about this, because various organizations are going to apply, so the matrix has to include this.”
“The three funding bins that the funds will go to, it might be good to think of this on a three-year rolling average,” said Brad Leach of Salida. “There might be years when one or the other might not have big needs, but one is huge.”
“I’m a big advocate of these conservation easements, but since this is taxpayer money … is the intent to pay these fees?” said Alison Brown. “If so, who gets it, and what about the financial benefits? It’s taxpayer money, so these are fair questions.”
To which Felt replied “You’re talking about the transaction costs – the tax benefits are marketable, you can sell them and get cash. This has to be across the board – fees are waived for everybody (resident) in Chaffee County who puts land into a conservation easement – it shouldn’t be – ‘this is a great guy, and he should get it,’ but others don’t.”
“We are going to need a strong conflict of interest policy (for the citizen advisory board),” said Tom Sobal of Salida. “I perceive conflicts of interest arising … I’m against pre-decision funding of projects that aren’t shovel ready, but implementation ready. You could award funds for planning, but not early stage stuff when they aren’t ready.”
Ted Maxwell of Maysville brought up the timing for the grant cycle; supporting the biannual grant process as better for long-term projects. Other attendees raised the importance of setting long enough terms on the advisory board that group synergy would give the most public benefit, and building in enough flexibility on the geographic requirement that if that area didn’t have a qualified subject matter expert, that another from another part of the county could fill in. Others suggested developing Memos of Understanding with federal, state and other related public agencies, so that as appointments to those entities change over time, the relationship remains and doesn’t have to constantly be renegotiated.
On the subject of measuring success, Baker noted that two stages of measurement might be wise; “First, did it do what it was designed to do? Second, what is the economic benefit?”
Felt noted that while that evening’s event was like “an old style town hall setting,” the county will seek input during its regular meeting Jan 15 in Buena Vista too. “We’re adding a Jan. 22 regular meeting, but by that time we hope to move on to formulating the action plan, so we want feed back coming in sooner, rather than later.”
One message from the County Chair stood out. “We have these landscape-scale challenges,” said Felt. “To characterize our challenges as forests, recreational and working lands and landscapes – I think we’re up to it — but we’re going to need to all work together.”