Business leaders hear from public sector

Budget cuts, natural-gas values, changing health care will weigh on S.W. Colorado’s future

Morris Enlarge photo

Morris

New testing, lower state funding, more primary-care doctors and declining natural-gas revenues are a few of the most pressing issues facing the county’s largest governmental and nonprofit institutions, leaders of those entities told local businesspeople Wednesday.

The business community got an earful about what’s happening at some of Durango’s biggest institutions during a forum about the state of the community hosted by the Durango Chamber of Commerce.

The panelists were Durango Mayor Doug Lyon, La Plata County Manager Joe Kerby, Mercy Regional Medical Center CEO Tom Gessel, Fort Lewis College Provost Barbara Morris and Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger.

Though the Chamber of Commerce primarily focuses on the private sector, businesses recognize the importance of staying informed about the other sectors of the community, said Jack Llewellyn, the chamber’s executive director.

“They are major employers in our community,” Llewellyn said.

Representatives from Fort Lewis College and La Plata County talked about impending revenue declines in the coming years, which will affect things such as tuition-rate decisions, fundraising efforts and budget cuts.

A recent University of Denver study predicted that by 2024, the state of Colorado will generate only enough revenue to support K-12 education, Medicaid and the corrections system. There will be no tax revenue for public colleges and universities and other core services of state government, Morris said.

With that news in mind, Fort Lewis College is looking at various ways to survive without funding from the state, funding that currently makes up almost half of the college’s revenue. The college is considering tuition increases, more fundraising and endowments, public and private partnerships and grants and contracts to diversify its revenue stream, Morris said.

If the college raises tuition, it also has to find ways to make its degrees more valuable, Morris said. As one possibility, the college is looking at the feasibility of graduate programs in professional fields such as teacher education, business, public health and athletic training.

Meanwhile, declining natural-gas prices and property values are the source of La Plata County’s revenue woes, Kerby said. Next year, the county is expecting a $3.8 million revenue decrease stemming from falling gas prices and property values.

On a brighter note, access to primary health care should get easier with Mercy Regional Medical Center’s new commitment to recruit four to six primary-care doctors at a cost of about $1 million, Gessel said.

The primary-care doctors should help absorb the increased demand expected when the Colorado Health Benefit Exchange goes into effect this fall.

The medical center also is trying out a program with its employees to incentivize preventive care and overall wellness. Beginning last month, Mercy began offering employees discounts on their insurance premiums in exchange for completing health assessments and screenings.

The idea is to encourage the type of preventive care that will keep employees healthier and eventually reduce health-insurance costs to employers, Gessel said. If the program is successful, Mercy plans to help implement a similar program at other businesses by helping with health screenings or wellness coaches, he said.

In the world of primary and secondary education, teachers are preparing to transition to a new set of standardized tests in 2014. The tests will be based on Colorado’s new state standards and will have a greater focus on the application of knowledge rather than memorizing facts, which will help prepare students for a world of unknowns, Snowberger said.

“We have a daunting task ahead of us which is that we’re preparing kids for a very different world than what we have grown up in,” Snowberger said. “Our ninth-graders will take jobs that don’t exist yet when they graduate high school or college.”

ecowan@durangoherald.com

Gessel Enlarge photo

Gessel

Snowberger Enlarge photo

Snowberger