I’ve loved July my whole life. It is the summer month: You don’t have to think about school around the corner; swimming in the lake is always best; corn and peaches start coming in; baseball is in full swing and World Cup winners are decided.
In La Plata County, celebrations you enjoyed since childhood bookend the month, starting with the Bayfield and Durango Independence Day parades and ending with San Ignacio and Fiesta Days. July is the highlight of the summer.
In fact, I would go so far as to name July “All Star Days,” not simply for the fact that baseball’s all-star game takes place each July – but maybe because this year’s game was played in my beloved Cleveland. It made this July even more special to me, and got me thinking about the all-star activities going on around La Plata County.
Perhaps the most exciting inning for the county came when we learned that we would be receiving significantly more Payment in Lieu of Tax money from the federal government than we had anticipated for 2019. This funding is paid to cities and counties with federal lands in their jurisdictions to offset the property taxes not paid on these public lands. The trouble is, PILT funding can be difficult to rely on because it is subject to the forces at play in Washington, D.C., each year.
The county had planned on $395,000 in PILT money this year; instead, the county received an additional $433,000 – enough to quickly activate a plan we had shelved to build La Plata County Search and Rescue a home base. This critical all-volunteer organization that activates instantly as soon as someone is lost or injured in our abundant backcountry has never had a home of its own for staging and storing equipment. Our hope was to build Search and Rescue a home during the remodel of the former National Guard Armory, but the cost was too high to make it work for the 2019 budget. Now, with the unanticipated PILT money – which can be used only for very specific things, including search and rescue – the project can proceed.
The timing could not be better: Demolition work has just begun on the Armory, and plans for the Search and Rescue building were already finalized. Just when we thought we were going to strike out for this year on the Search and Rescue building, we knocked it out of the park!
Meanwhile, further up the Animas Valley, where property owners below the 416 Fire burn scar have been eagerly awaiting assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Emergency Watershed Protection program, there is progress to report. La Plata County is the local sponsor for the program, and has hired a project manager to work with NRCS, conducting much of the design and engineering work for the program that conducts mitigation and restoration work to protect life and property threatened by flooding and debris flow.
There are boots on the ground doing the design work. Once that is complete, we will go back to property owners with the plans and a cost estimate for the construction. The very excellent news there is that NRCS pays for 75 percent of the construction cost – as well as all of the design and engineering work – and the Colorado Department of Local Affairs has agreed to provide another 12.5 percent of the cost. That means property owners will only be responsible for 12.5 percent of the total cost to design and construct protections to their life and property. Not a bad deal – another base hit at least!
Finally, July has brought some much-needed bench depth to La Plata County. All year long, we have been getting by with many positions held vacant, meaning fewer people are doing more work. We have filled two critical roles, though, that will give our entire organization more capacity to serve the community. Please welcome Neal Starkebaum, our new Community Development director who oversees the Planning and Building departments, and Mike Segrest, deputy county manager. These two bring a wealth of experience and expertise in their fields and we are pleased to have them on board, contributing to the county’s work.
Any given July is a good one in my book, but this one is particularly noteworthy here in La Plata County. I hope all of you are enjoying the best month of the year as much as I am.
Julie Westendorff is chair of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at (970) 382-6219.