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Is Carbondale shovel-ready?

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How a small town is balancing the need for a boost from ‘The Stim’

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By Trina Ortega

While many small town mayors are scrambling to get their communities a piece of the stimulus pie, Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig is not so quick to grab taxpayer money for hastily planned projects. Fast tracking projects the town had not already identified as priorities, Hassig says, is “intergenerational warfare” that will straddle future generations with debt.

With an estimated $3 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 coming to Colorado, it presents a question for rural and small-town governments (and the nation, as a whole): How do we balance the short-term benefits against the long-term effects?

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Billed by the Obama Administration as “an unprecedented initiative to jumpstart the economy,” the stimulus allocates $787 billion nationally that aims to create or save jobs and pump money back into communities.  

“Just because they’re giving money away, I don’t want to just pony up projects,” Hassig stated at a trustees meeting earlier this year.  

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Hassig was responding to a proposal by town staff to attempt putting an extension of Industry Place from Highway 133 to Eighth Street into the stimulus hopper, even though the town has yet to schedule public hearings, or discuss design options with affected neighborhoods.

Trustees John Hoffmann and Frosty Merriott have said the town shouldn’t shut the door on projects that need attention. Merriott noted the expansion of Highway 133, which has been on and off the table for years and has been named as a critical improvement once development at the Crystal Village site begins. .

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Hoffmann stated that it’s about job creation in the country’s largest economic crisis since the Great Depression. With the economy taking the “nosedive” that it did, the idea is to get people working, he implored. The White House estimates that 59,000 jobs will be created or saved in Colorado, as a result of the economic recovery plan.

“I don’t think that we are magically going to find ourselves out of the woods six or nine or 12 months from now,” Hassig told the Sun.

“Don’t confuse me with the Republicans. I really doubt that they are acting in good faith,” he said. “I think you can be critical of the elements of the stimulus plan in a nonpolitical way.”

The stimulus will fund a range of projects in government, nonprofit and the private sector. But so far, the Town of Carbondale has not received any funding — in part because there are no prioritized “shovel-ready” projects.

$330 million to highways

Money is being allocated quickly and on a tight timeline. The Colorado Department of Transportation, for instance, already has doled out its $330 million in funding on a regional level with the input of town and county leaders, based on a system that already exists.

The eligible CDOT initiatives are described as “shovel-ready,” meaning that 50 percent of the projects must be in the works within 120 days from receiving the funding, according to Welden Allen, a regional transportation director for CDOT. That clock started ticking March 2.

Highway 13 out of Rifle, exit 116 in Glenwood Springs, and roundabouts in Edwards are among the larger transportation projects being funded in neighboring towns. Enhancements and beautification — such as the Devereux Road bike and pedestrian system in Glenwood — are part of another pot of stimulus money handed down through CDOT.

Allen could not determine the number of jobs those CDOT projects will potentially create but is sure the projects will meet the mission to stimulate local economies.

“We don’t know [about jobs] until we start the reporting. The intent of the entire bill was to put people back to work. I would anticipate the more projects that are out there the more people will be going to work,” he said.

In addition to hiring contractors and workers for the actual projects, construction has a “snowball effect,” Allen says, with workers spending money in the communities where they’re stationed.

 Pitkin County announced March 23 that the Aspen Airport will receive $4 million in economic recovery funds administered through the Federal Aviation Administration.

The funds — welcomed by county officials — will be used to rehabilitate and improve nearly 16,000 square yards of the airport’s general aviation aircraft parking aprons. 

“This ‘shovel-ready’ project is contained in the airport’s approved 2010 capital improvement program, and can be designed and bid quickly since a significant amount of similar apron work was completed under previous recent projects,” Airport Director Jim Elwood said in a press release.

‘Debt is staggering’

But Hassig holds that the long-term implications are not worth it. “The debt is staggering and it represents a kind of intergenerational warfare,” he stated. “By my lights, a shovel-ready project which was not previously funded may be entirely the wrong thing to spend money on.”

On a philosophical level, Sam Mamet of the Colorado Municipal League (CML) says Hassig is right to question how to handle the funding responsibly.  

“This is pretty overwhelming. We have never had this amount of money coming back to states and local governments this quickly. It is overwhelming to sort it all out,” said Mamet, who has been with the CML for 30 years, the last four as its executive director. “It’s very wise to not just throw things up against the wall and see what sticks.”

The CML — a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides advocacy, information and training to build stronger cities and towns — has been busier than ever helping town leaders wade through the implications of the stimulus.

Mamet said leaders should look at the requirements and “strings” attached to the stimulus. Although the federal government will be scrutinizing the funded programs, it is still town leaders’ responsibility to act strategically, he said. For instance, it makes sense for Carbondale to focus on areas of sustainability since the community is at the forefront of that industry.

Energy projects worthwhile

Planners for the new Third Street Center are ready to apply for a piece of the $1.3 billion from Gov. Bill Ritter’s New Energy Economy plan. Although the Governor’s Energy Office has not released the eligibility requirements and deadlines, the amount is significant, Mamet said.

For Carbondale, it’s “low-hanging fruit, ready to be picked,” he added.  

Hassig agrees there are areas such as renewable energy and transit that could deserve a boost because they are investments in the future. (See accompanying story)

A new project recently identified by the town is the replacement of the Nettle Creek collection and distribution lines, the main source of water for the town. The estimated $3.28 million project would include replacing the old pipes and the installation of hydro-electric equipment.

“Why not see what are the implications of capturing that energy,” Hassig said.

The town’s wastewater treatment plant northwest of the Highway 133 bridge is a different story. The facility is not high on the state’s list for an expansion because it is only used at a little more than 50 percent of capacity, well below the 80 percent trigger used to prioritize funding.

“It’s a very funny tightrope situation,” Hassig said. When Carbondale’s population increases by 30 percent, or roughly 2,500, the facility would be running at 80 percent capacity. Pushing for an expansion “puts you in a position of saying, ‘We’ve got to do everything in our power to grow,’” Hassig said.  

Both of those projects are in queue to receive funding through the existing State Revolving Loan Funds, a program that offers below-market-rate loans. That pot of funding will be augmented by stimulus monies.

According to Mamet of the CML, Colorado will receive about $60 million for small community water and sewer systems.

Highways and wastewater just skim the surface; funding available through the Recovery Act runs the gamut from education and housing to agriculture and policing efforts. Plus, there are Community Development Block Grants, of which Colorado will receive $7.5 million, to go to community-related projects.

For communities interested in their chunk of the money, Mamet believes the squeaky wheel gets the grease. He has recommended that leaders weigh the costs but act fast.

“You have three choices here,” he told a group of mayors this month. “You can stand on the platform and watch the train go by, you can get in the caboose, or you can get in the engine room and drive the train. I suggest you get in the engine room.”

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