Budget bust looms over Colorado | VailDaily.com

Budget bust looms over Colorado

Matt Zalaznick
A snowplow clears the Eastbound lane of Interstate 70 on the summit of Vail Pass Wednesday afternoon. Snow and high winds caused adverse driving conditions in the mountains Throughout the day. ( Ken Lawdermilk/Vail Daily )

State lawmakers have only just started examining how they can hack hundreds of millions of dollars from just about every state agency, including transportation, social services and law enforcement.

“We’ve got to come up with a bunch more cuts and nobody knows at his point where the cuts are going to be,” say state Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, who represents Eagle County. “But nobody is going to be unscathed.”

The legislative session began last week with the budget for the fiscal year that begins in July No. 1 on the agenda. The only two areas where federal mandates prohibit cuts in spending are in education –kindergarten through 12th grade – and Medicare/Medicaid, Taylor says. The Legislature is expected to send a proposed spending package to Gov. Bill Owens some time in March. Owens has the power of line-item vetoes to change specific spending measures passed by the Legislature.

But, Taylor says, the deficit could grow even as lawmakers are at work on cutting the budget.

“It’s a moving target,” Taylor says. “And that will make it much more difficult to find where to cut.”

Paving preserved

Road repairs and highway projects are where the Vail Valley could feel the biggest pinch. But the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Jeffrey Kullman, director for the region stretching from East Vail to the border of Kansas, says a $6 million repaving project planned for Vail Pass next summer is safe. The state will repave the roadway from East Vail to the summit, a total of about 10 miles.

“That’s going to happen –no doubt about it,” Kullman says.

Included in that $6 million is $400,000 that will go toward continued efforts to contain pollution caused by the sand laid down on Interstate 70 during the winter to give cars, trucks and other vehicles more traction when the road is icy. The sand has been spilling down the hillsides and into the Black Lakes at the summit and into Black Gore Creek, which flows down Vail Pass and into Gore Creek in East Vail.

The sand is filling up the Black Lakes, which are used to store water that is released into Gore Creek during winter months when the stream runs low. The same sediment is caking the banks of Black Gore Creek and coating the stream bottom, harming fish and insects. The extent of the damage, however, has only just begun to be studied by the Department of Transportation, the U.S. Forest Service and the Eagle River Watershed Council, a valley environmental group.

Spending cuts, however, continue to keep a proposed I-70 interchange for the Eagle County Regional Airport in limbo. CDOT and the county have been hammering out a more direct route from the freeway to the airport, but the interchange is more costly than most because it requires bridges spanning the valley floor.

Plowing the pass

A transportation expense the valley depends on even more is the hundreds of thousands dollars it takes every winter to keep Vail Pass open and driveable.

Kullman says he has urged the commission that controls the transportation department’s funding not to cut funds for snow removal and other winter-time maintenance.

“The two highest priorities are keeping the maintenance and the re-surfacing budgets uncut,” Kullman says. “So far, there have been zero cuts in these two programs.”

Frank Johnson, president of the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau, says the valley would be in a lot of trouble if the pass wasn’t kept open throughout the winter.

“It’s really our main artery from the transportation hub of Denver to our

community,” Johnson says. “It’s absolutely vital that our visitors be able to get from Denver International Airport, and from Front Range, up here.”

But the snow and increasing traffic is forcing Vail and other towns and resorts along I-70 to look for other ways for people to travel to the mountains, Johnson says.

“It’s critical we keep that in shape as we look for other ways to get people here,” Johnson says.

Local losses

Local programs already feeling a pinch are the valley’s public mental health agency and an anti-smoking program planned for schools.

Jolene Crook, director of Colorado West Mental Health’s offices in Eagle County, says the 6 percent budget cuts she expects could go as high as 15 percent.

“We have been paring and paring. We have already lost the equivalent of three full-time therapists,” Crook says. “We’re just trying to make sure we have the staff to serve the community.”

The agency has to make sure it has at least one therapist for all of its programs, including counselors for children and those that work with drug and alcohol abusers, Crook says.

“One of the biggest impacts is that we’ve had to give up our psychiatrist in Eagle,” Crook says.

Crook hopes fund-raising and donations can make up for some of the shortfall.

“We’re going to be turning to the community,” she says.

Beth Riley, director of the Eagle River Youth Coalition, says she is planning a program to help high school students stop smoking. But state money for the grant that was supposed to fund that program has dried up, she says.

The long-term health costs of kids continuing to smoke will far exceed the amount of money needed to fund the program, she says.

“Potentially, we could have had 30 youths quit smoking by June, and now we may not,” Riley says. “We might have resources to train teachers to bring the youth cessation program up here, but we don’t have resources to implement it now.”

But budget cuts haven’t killed the program, she says.

“We’re not giving up yet,” she says. “It’s still important enough that we’re going to make it happen, but we’re not so sure how we’re going to make it happen.”

Economic jam

The financial fix facing lawmakers is they may have to take money from programs many people think need more money, Taylor says.

“For those of us who live in the High Country, we can’t cut back on snow removal and highway maintenance –that just creates other problems,” says Taylor. “Transportation is going to get cut, but it’s mostly going to be a slowing down of projects.”

Spending cuts could mean the state will have to layoff some of its workers, though lawmakers are trying to avoid firing government employee, Taylor says.

“I think transportation is going to get cut, some parts of higher education –right across the board we’re going to have cuts,” Taylor says. “The thing we’re trying to avoid is having to cut state employees, but we’re not sure we can avoid that.”

An example of a program that’s in desperate need of money though is likely to face cuts is Colorado’s water commissioners. The combination of the drought and increasing demands means there likely will be more disputes over water in the coming year, Taylor says.

But there will be many similar conflicts as lawmakers try to shrink state spending by $850 million, Taylor says.

“There are going to be more water disputes, which means we need more water commissioners, not fewer,” Taylor says. “We always find that out after making cuts in those areas.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth part of a five-part series examining issues affecting residents of the Vail Valley that are being considered in the 2003 Colorado Legislature this year.

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