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2017 Year in Review APRIL

 

ARPA Settlement Case May Be Decided by July

Both parties in Case 31 have decided on a self-imposed deadline of July 14, 2017 to secure unanimous approval of ARPA’s member municipalities and to come to an agreement between Arkansas River Power Authority as Defendant and the Plaintiff in the case, the City of Lamar.

The Senior Judge in the lawsuit, Scott Bradford Epstein, noted in the joint status report on April 25th, 2017, that both parties in the lawsuit mediated on February 22, 2017 and reached a settlement in principle and their counsels agreed on the language of a final settlement agreement. The next step in the case is to have all member municipalities of ARPA also agree on the settlement.  ARPA member municipalities (Holly, Las Animas, Trinidad, La Junta, Springfield and Lamar) are each voting on their resolutions to approve the settlement of certain litigation in Case 31.

That suit, begun in 2014, asserted various breaches of contract against ARPA under the Organic Contract which created ARPA in 1979. It included a power supply agreement, joint operating agreement and lease agreement.  The City of Lamar wanted out of the lease agreement and sued to recover damages for the loss of its Unit 6 power plant.  Lamar was the only ARPA member that refused to re-affirm the Organic Contract in lieu of a cash settlement.  Had Lamar signed the re-affirmation, the city would not have been able to have their day in court.  After almost three years of costly negotiations, ARPA and the City of Lamar reached a ‘settlement in principle’ this past February during mediations held in Pueblo.  In order to be effective, all the member municipalities of Lamar must vote in agreement with the settlement.

The Lamar Repowering Project, begun in 2004, planned to convert the natural gas power plant in Lamar into a coal fired plant. The joint operating agreement between Lamar and ARPA called for using the 25MW natural gas plant with the addition of a coal-fired boiler and additional steam turbine and generator to bring the power output to 44MW.    The city allowed the use of equipment from its gas-fired plant for the project which developed significant cost overruns and required the issuance of additional construction bonds.  Problems with the new boiler kept the project from developing sufficient electricity while remaining within the limits of its state-issued air quality permit.  The boiler never performed to expectations which prompted a separate suit between ARPA and the manufacturer, Babcock & Wilcox.  An environmental group, WildEarth Guardians successfully brought suit against the plant based on its performance problems.  The court ruled a settlement payment to WildEarth Guardians as well as a ruling that the plant could not operate until 2023 prompting ARPA to purchase power for its member cities off the grid, a cost, along with the construction bonds, that was passed on to its customers.

The court determined in June, 2013, that the utilities groups would pay $450,000 in the settlement; of that, $225,000 will be paid to Denver University, $100,000 to WildEarth Guardians and $125,000 to low cost lighting installations which would benefit ARPA member communities.

The parties in the suit have now told the judge they expect to have a status report by July 14th, giving member communities enough time to decide that the final settlement agreement will be in their best interests and each community will adopt a resolution to that effect. The ARPA board members, comprised from each municipality will also be directed to vote on the settlement.

Governor Hickenlooper

Hickenlooper Town Hall Focuses on State Economy and Rural Growth Issues

Governor Hickenlooper’s last town hall meeting in Lamar was in September, 2015 and the format for his April 19th meeting held at Lamar Community College was unchanged. Accompanied by several members of the state cabinet, Hickenlooper first addressed the audience at the LCC Wellness Center on relevant issues for Colorado residents before his cabinet briefed the attendees about developments in their respective departments.  The governor was joined by Donna Lynne, Lieutenant Governor, who serves as the state’s Chief Operating Officer as well; Stephanie Copeland of the Office of Economic Development; Shailen Bhatt from the Department of Transportation and Chris Wiseman, Deputy Commissioner for the Colorado Department of Agriculture.  The meeting was facilitated by Prowers County resident, John Stulp, former State Agriculture Commissioner and currently the chief advisor to Governor Hickenlooper on Water Issues in Colorado.

“Colorado basically has the number one economy in America,” the governor remarked, stressing that the demands for agricultural products will remain one of our economic mainstays as it did to help the country out of the Great Depression decades ago. Hickenlooper acknowledged the disparity of growth between the Front Range and rural areas of the state, explaining that he wants to see more technological growth in rural areas including more access to broadband capabilities in the smallest towns in the state.

The governor addressed changing technologies as well, “Automation has begun to eliminate a lot of jobs in the U.S.,” he explained, adding that this change can foster tremendous wealth in some companies which flows upwards to the top 1% earnings bracket. “I’d like to see a way to recoup some of that wealth.  I believe the top 1% has an obligation to help create and develop new industries; not as a hand-out, but as a way of sustaining job growth for new sectors of the economy.”  The governor also mentioned employing the new Jumpstart program which can provide tax incentives to new businesses after they have been in operation for several years.

When asked about the eventual construction of the Lamar Reliever Route, Transportation Director, Shailen Bhatt went right to the point; there is no current available funding for the project, estimated at $150M. He listed other local projects that are improving traffic flow in the region, addressing the current Lamar Main Street project, the new overpass on Highway 50 between Granada and Holly, upgrades for Amtrak on the BNSF railroad and improvements on the Ports to Plains project as well as adding lanes to Highway 50.  “The estimated cost of development for that road between Pueblo and the Kansas State line is $1B,” he said, explaining that, “When you feed an elephant, you have to do it in small portions,” as a way of explaining these projects will be undertaken over a span of years when funds are available.  Bhatt said most of highway funding budgeted in Colorado is earmarked for upkeep as opposed to building new ones.

John Stulp gave a brief description of future water demands in Colorado, given the state’s growing population. “We’re going to see as many people move to the state over the next 30 years as there will be born from current residents,” he explained, saying that will double the current 5,000,000 residents by the year 2050.  Stulp said this will call for more efficient uses of energy and conversation measures as well as planning ahead for additional water storage throughout Colorado.

Regarding the development of more solar and wind power in Colorado, Governor Hickenlooper said it is remarkable that for the first time in almost 50 years, the country will be in a position to be a net exporter of energy by 2018. He said we are facing a challenge with the construction of transmission lines in the region.  “The city doesn’t build them, the county doesn’t either.  It has to go through the Public Utilities Commission and that is a long and involved process and they are held responsible for making the most cost-effective decisions for their customers.”  The governor said he believed the state will see increased construction and use of wind and solar power in the years to come.

The meeting was attended by numerous elected officials as well as representatives of local government and civic organizations. When asked if the topics covered in the public meeting were any different from an earlier private meeting the governor held with some of those officials, the Prowers County Commissioners said some other topics included the on-going issues with conservation easements and the impact CDPHE rulings would have on small communities with regard to maintenance of their landfills.

 

Municipal Lodging Tax Idea Presented to Lamar City Council

The idea of a municipal lodging tax was presented by two of its proponents to the Lamar City Council during their work session, Monday, April 24th. A 2% lodging tax currently exists for guests of motels throughout Prowers County.  The one recently proposed would be for Lamar motels.  Lamar residents Pat Palmer and Chris Wilkinson discussed the benefits that would come from passage of the new tax which would have to be approved by a majority of Lamar residents, perhaps as early as the November elections.

The funds derived from the new lodging tax would be used for an events planner salary, marketing, travel, office expenses, equipment and to eventually construct a permanent events and convention center for Lamar. The current lodging tax only funds requests for advertising, marketing and contract fees and is administered by the Lodging Tax Panel whose members are appointed by the county.    Wilkinson provided the council with a sliding scale and finance sheet for potential revenues based on the percentage of taxes that would be levied on motel rooms, from 1% to 5%.  The Lodging Tax Panel’s 2% tax generates approximately $100,000 a year explained Wilkinson.  “The new tax could raise as much as $250,000 each year based on a 5% tax on motel room use and wouldn’t have any of the restrictions the current Lodging Tax carries,” he told the council.  By comparison, La Junta’s tax generates $135,100 a year with fewer motel rooms than Lamar and Finney County in Kansas generates $824,500 each year. Denver, for example, has a room tax rate of 10.75%.

The initial Lodging Tax concept was met with resistance years ago by some residents and motel owners claiming the tax would drive away potential customers. In fact, it was defeated the first time it appeared on a ballot but was passed on the second try.  Proponents, at that time, stressed the tax would not impact local residents, but was based only on a motel room being rented.  A $100 a night room would be taxed $2 extra dollars by the user based on the 2% rate.  Those in favor of the Lodging Tax argued it would be hard to understand someone who would not pay the rate in Lamar, and instead travel the 60 or 90 miles to La Junta or Garden City where they would have to pay the lodging rates in those cities anyway.  Retail sales tax revenue in Prowers County since the local tax was instituted hasn’t shown any downturn in motel use or negative impact for motel owners/operators.

Lamar City Attorney, Garth Nieschburg, agreed when asked, to assist the group of residents with some of the legal aspects of turning the idea into an ordinance for a future ballot. Nieschburg said this will be a TABOR issue when dealing with tax revenues in the public sector.  “One way would be to circulate petitions which require the city clerk to verify the signatures of about 200-plus persons needed to move this forward,” he explained, adding it would then be referred by the city council to local voters.  The alternative would be to have the council initiate the ordinance which would be simpler.  “That doesn’t mean the city takes a stand on the initiative,” he stated.

City Clerk, Linda Williams, said the cost of the proposal, which is not certain at this time, is not in this year’s budget as some expenses for publications, pamphlets and the vote on the ballot would have to be paid for. She explained that for the vote to be on the November ballot, the second reading of the ordinance would have to be done by the council by their first meeting in July.

Wilkinson said the concept of the tax has been developing for over two years and most recently from meetings with area residents including Angie Cue, George Gotto, Jim Larrick, Eric Depperschmidt, Aaron Leiker and Rose Ann Yates as well as Pat Palmer. He added that the 5% level, if approved, could develop as much as $117,000 which will be dedicated to local improvements including refurbishing the steam engine at the Welcome Center, highway signage south of Lamar, upgrades to the baseball complex as well as other projects already recognized by the Lamar City Council.  “We easily identified over two dozen local historically based tourist areas in the community and have compiled the number of events booked at the fairgrounds for the past two years.  There’s room for growth especially if we have an individual dedicated to organizing the events and attracting conventions back to Lamar like they were years ago,” said Wilkinson.

Demolition Underway for New Truck Stop

City Council Resolutions Open Doors for Economic Development

The Lamar City Council approved two resolutions Monday, April 24, during their regularly scheduled meeting, which can help foster economic development opportunities in the community. The first resolution, 17-04-01, approves the annexation of property commonly known as T.L. Tucker property, located at 708 North Main Street.  The city recently acted on a petition from Jean Tucker and Eudora West, owners of the property, who requested the annexation take place.  A public hearing for comment on the annexation of the 8.4 acre parcel was set for June 12, 2017.  The property in question runs eastward from Main Street along Avenida Colonia, just north of the Lamar Canal.  The Street was formerly known as Auwaeter Drive during the years Neoplan USA was in operation.  The land has been marked for development into a future truck stop which will be operated by Pilot Travel Centers, LLC.

The Prowers Journal has learned the truck stop will be bordered on the north by Lampton Road which will serve as the access route for car traffic, while semi truck traffic will run parallel to the Lamar Canal and Avenida Colonia. There is some discussion with CDOT for moving the traffic light at the intersection to accommodate the new development.  Fuel service and truck parking will be located at the rear, or the eastern end of the facility.  There are no plans for a sit-down, waitress-style restaurant at this point within the proposed facility, as the current plans call for more of a take-out or drive-thru styled restaurant.

The second resolution, 17-04-02, authorizes participation in the Rural Jumpstart Program, state legislated tax relief for new businesses and hires who locate into certain designated areas in Colorado to be known as “Jump-Start Zones”. SECED, Southeast Colorado Enterprise Development, has encouraged municipalities to adopt the resolution which allows for various incentives to be offered to a business, above and beyond those generally available through a community government.  The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade have been contacted by a company that has indicated an interest in locating to Lamar if the program is adopted.  Prowers County officials have indicated they will participate in the Jumpstart program.  The proposal calls for a new business to be refunded 100% of the municipal business personal property taxes imposed on all the businesses approved by the Colorado Economic Development Commission for eight years and no new businesses will be allowed after December 31, 2020.  Another stipulation is that the new business be unique in nature to the region of southeast Colorado and will not compete with an existing business operation.

 

Granada Landfill is a Top Issue for Trustees

The cost of bringing the Granada landfill into compliance with regulations from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment is a higher price than most rural communities can afford. Several Trustees attended a regional meeting on landfill requirements on February 28th, during which they received some hard financial news about their operation.

Following a 2012 landfill inspection by the state, the Trustees were notified in January 2013 of 17 deficiencies found at the Granada landfill.   Not all of the deficiencies were of a direct environmental nature, as several pertained to fees, access routes, record keeping and financial aspects of operating the landfill.  Others listed waste management corrections that were required and those are where most of the operating costs are located, beyond the financial scope of the town.  The estimated cost to upgrade the landfill is $180,000 and the estimated cost to operate the landfill, adhering to state regulations would be around $300,000 a year.  Costs associated with development of a centralized transfer station are also beyond the town’s budget.  The Trustees said even in the landfill is closed they will still be required to install monitoring wells and provide maintenance at the site.  Mayor Glenn Otto said he will attend Governor Hickenlooper’s town hall meeting in Lamar on April 19th and ask for some form of consideration.  A letter from the Prowers County Commissioners on behalf of the towns in the county has been sent to state legislators.  The state has indicated it may begin to fine non-compliant communities by this fall.

 

Lamar Workforce Center Hosting 1st Annual Job Fair

While quarterly job fairs in the past have seen anywhere from 80 to 95 attendees looking for a job, the 1st Annual Job Fair at the Lamar Workforce Center may bring in more numbers, especially with a larger turnout of local employers and resource centers.    Elva Macias and Kyla Sather, local Workforce Center Labor and Employment Specialists at the Lamar Center at 407 East Olive Street, said the fair will be located in two rooms on Tuesday, April 25th at the SOS Center, in both the main meeting room as well as the special events room and they anticipate more than two dozen tables will be set up to assist job hunters and residents who need additional information on careers.

“We have our annual open house and job fair in September,” explained Sather, who said the other two most recent fairs has seen a pretty good turnout with from 5 to 10 prospective employers attending. “We’ve had job seekers come in for these from as far away as Rocky Ford and La Junta,” she added.

Fourteen resource contacts have been listed with seven responding that they’ll attend on the 25th. They include:  Southeast Health Group, Department of Vocational Rehab, Department of Human Services, Prowers County Public Health, Lamar Community College, Lamar Head Start and Welcome Home Center.

There are 30 potential employers that have been contacted to take part in the Job Fair, but Sather says not all have responded at this time. She said there is still interest in finding a job in Lamar and Prowers County, “We can see anywhere from five to 20 persons a day come in looking for assistance in finding their next job, and there have been times when we’ve gotten as many as 40.  It’s kind of a mad house when that happens, but it’s not that frequent.”  Some employers that will attend include:  High Plains Community Health Center, Lamar Police Department, Love’s Gas Station, Loaf and Jug, Lamar Estates and CoreCivic.

The 1st Annual Workforce Center Job & Resource Fair will run from 1:30 to 4:30 on Tuesday, the 25th. No appointments are necessary and refreshments will be provided.  As of February, 2017 the unemployment rate for Prowers County was 3.4% with approximately 201 unemployed persons.   That’s a decrease from the previous year when the percentage rate was 4.2% and 247 were jobless.  The Colorado Department of Labor, job-seeker website lists 57 current job openings for Lamar.

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