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Colorado legislator aims to split federal money between rural counties, schools

Berny Morson
Rocky Mountain News

It was like plopping a steak dinner in front of a hungry man.

As the nation sank deeper into recession last fall, Congress tossed $478 million into a program for the nation’s poorest rural communities – places in the country where fixing a school roof or grading a road is a challenge even in the best of times.

“Omigosh. In my district alone, it would allow us to catch up with all of our capital construction needs,” said Charlie Warren, superintendent of Moffat school district in Saguache County in southwest Colorado.

Warren ticked off a list of needs in his district at the northern tip of the San Luis Valley, from new school buses to a more cost-efficient energy system for a building that went up in 1921.

But now the federal windfall is the subject of wrangling in Saguache County, where $2.8 million must be divided among the school districts and the county.

“When I campaigned, I probably had maybe one or two people ask me about schools,” said Sam Pace, county commission chairman. “But probably 50 or 60 percent of the people asked me about the roads.”

A bill in the Colorado legislature would require schools and counties to split the money 50-50. The proposal by Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, is opposed by a group that represents the state’s county commissioners.

Driving the dispute is not the money itself, but a tangle of state and federal regulations.

The way the federal funds are divided wasn’t controversial until October, when Congress used the Agriculture Department program to pump economic bailout money into poor counties.

Colorado’s funding under the program nearly tripled, to $18.4 million. Saguache County’s share jumped tenfold because it has a high poverty rate.

State law requires counties to give as little as 5 percent of Agriculture Department payments to schools. Enter Merrifield, the lawmaker who proposes to split the money 50-50 between the school districts and the county.

“We should be at least evenly balanced between kids and asphalt,” said Merrifield.

County commissioners statewide are worried about the long- term effect of Merrifield’s bill, says John “Chip” Taylor of Colorado Counties Inc., adding that it could affect Agriculture Department payments to counties after the bailout program expires in four years.


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