Eagle County wants to know how you would spend $10 million

As federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars become available, county officials compile project wish list for public comment

A Colorado National Guard Specialist officer turns drivers around after closing Cottonwood Pass for a vehicle recovery in August. The pass saw heavy traffic last summer as a result of canyon closures. Improving the road is one idea among many for spending stimulus funds awarded to Eagle County.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

It sounds like the premise of a reality television show — you are given $10 million to spend with the caveat that it’s all out the door by Dec. 31, 2026.

But that is the actual reality facing Eagle County with funding provided through the American Rescue Plan Act. The federal stimulus bill is providing $1.9 trillion in relief to offset the impact COVID-19 had on the economy, public health, local government, individuals and businesses.

Eagle County was awarded $10.7 million for “equitable economic recovery from COVID-19 impacts.” That said, broad categories govern how the money can be spent.

Those stipulations are:

  • Replacing lost public sector revenue
  • Responding to the far-reaching public health and negative economic impacts of the pandemic
  • Providing premium pay for essential workers
  • Investment in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure

On March 1, the Eagle County Board of Commissioners discussed potential project funding and public engagement for the spending process.

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Wish list

After learning that more than $10 million in stimulus money was on the way earlier this year, county finance personnel sent out a request to other departments asking for project ideas. The resulting wish list included 20 projects costing a total of $29.6 million.

After refinement, the list was whittled down to $27.5 million and presented to the county commissioners on March 1.

The list includes everything from $5 million for improvements to Cottonwood Pass Road to $25,000 for a veterinary services fund. The list has been organized so the various projects are categorized according to one of four county strategic goals. Those goals are to create a resilient economy, provide exceptional core services, protect the mountain ecosystem and support the local workforce.

Now that the ideas have been presented, priced and categorized, it’s time to hear what local residents think.

“One of the final requirements of this funding is we engage the public for guidance on how the funds are used,” said county Chief Financial Officer Jill Klosterman. That will happen through an online survey using a platform called Balancing Act.

As its name suggests, the program will give users the opportunity to look through the list of priority categories and different projects — illustrated with embedded photos and video. Survey respondents will then allocate the $10.7 million for the items they support.

The county hopes to begin the outreach effort this spring.

“We really do want feedback from people to see where the dollars should go,” Klosterman said.

But while honing in on stimulus funding priorities, there may be some challenges involved, especially when the goals for the one-time funding overlap with long-term county objectives. The most striking example is the county’s workforce housing efforts.

More freed up funding

“Housing takes up a big chunk of the potential ask,” noted Commissioner Matt Scherr. Three projects — Habitat for Humanity partnerships ($3 million), other housing partnerships ($3 million) and West Eagle Housing Development infrastructure ($3 million) — would eat up $9 million of the total.

The lack of workforce housing is consistently cited by residents as one of the biggest issues facing Eagle County. Because of that, the commissioners have already embarked on efforts to address the problems, most recently by launching the Bold Housing Moves effort and with the sale of the Lake Creek Village apartments.

That sale generated $50 million, earmarked for housing solutions..

Future homeowners attend the groundbreaking of the 100th house built for Habitat for Humanity Vail Valley Thursday, July 1, in Gypsum. Among the wish list items proposed by Eagle County for stimulus funds are allocating money to build more Habitat housing.
Vail Daily archive

“We started talking about this money (the stimulus funding) before the sale of Lake Creek Village,” Klosterman noted. But even $50 million won’t be enough to solve the county’s housing issue, she noted, and the stimulus funding could provide additional assistance.

For example, the Habitat for Humanity funding could finance 16 housing units and accelerate the timeline for the organization’s Third Street project in Eagle, Klosterman explained.

Big chance

In the grand scheme of long-term county finance, the impact of a one-time $10 million windfall is lessened, noted Scherr. But for projects that have languished without funding, he said the stimulus money represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Do we want to try to think about these things in terms of investments — about the future, rather than chipping away at little things we would like to have that may not make a huge difference to the community?” he asked.

Some of the funding options are difficult to allocate, he added. For example, providing premium pay for essential workers would be a challenge, Scherr said.

“And we just don’t know yet how we should spend money on broadband,” Scherr added.

There is also the question of ongoing costs. A $3 million proposed senior and community center in the El Jebel area in the Roaring Fork Valley would cover construction, but that’s just the beginning of its long-term cost.

“You can’t just build the center and not have ongoing costs for services there,” noted Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney.

“Right now these are all just basic ideas and we want feedback from the community about these big ideas. They aren’t fully vetted,” Klosterman responded.

County manager Jeff Shroll added that the $5 million proposal for Cottonwood Pass is another case in point. The total price tag to improve the roadway is likely in the $15 million range, so the stimulus money would be allocated as matching funds or to improve a portion of the road.

One more big idea was added to the list after the commissioners’ discussion. Initially, the list included a $335,000 proposal for LED lighting at the county fairgrounds arena.

“I would almost rather see a $2 million fairgrounds improvement plan for the exhibit hall and those kinds of things rather than just a lighting project,” offered Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry.

With that, the commissioners said they look forward to learning what the public wants to fund.

“I think it is really great to be going to the community with some ideas with numbers around it,” Chandler-Henry said. “I think people will be really interested in this and it will feel like it is their investment.”

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