As the state slowly reopens, projects underway before the COVID-19 crisis have to pass the new budget realities at all levels of government.
Recently, Colorado's Joint Budget Committee sat down to start debating upwards of $3 billion dollars in cuts. That has led some people in Southern Colorado to try and figure out when one favorite project will move forward - the development and opening of the new state park at Fisher's Peak.
Reporter Bill Knowles has been covering Fisher's Peak State Park for The World Journal in Walsenburg. The paper covers Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.
KRCC's Andrea Chalfin spoke with him about the conversations happening in the surrounding communities.
KRCC: In the last few days, there have been several different dates put forward about the timeline on Fisher's Peak. Tell us what we know.
Bill Knowles: Just after announcing the new park last fall, Gov. Polis said he was hoping to have it open by September 2020. City officials were pushing for this upcoming June for a soft opening.
But Colorado Parks and Wildlife--which is managing the opening of the park---has recently said 2021, and they have said there will be no soft opening.
I should say that at this point everything is guess work. But we do know that the original allocation from the state for Fisher's Peak State Park was $6 million. Two million was cut in late February for political reasons, and now the question is, how much of that will stay in the budget?
KRCC: I imagine that this is the same question people are asking all over about any number of projects. What are the stakeholders saying?
Knowles: The remaining $4 million from the state is on the chopping block. Trinidad Mayor Phil Rico told city council last week that he thinks it will be killed.
"Just to let you know," Rico said, "the Fisher's Peak funding that had been approved, the $4 million, I think they're going to kill that bill because they're trying to save some money upstate. So I'm not sure what's going to happen."
Final decisions on cuts may be made as early as May 26 when the legislature reconvenes. Or it could take much longer.
KRCC: All levels of government will hit a tough budget crisis as sales tax revenue drops through the floor during the quarantine. Could a budget crisis at the local level affect Fisher's Peak?
Knowles: As of April 30, the region is facing a huge loss in sales tax income—more than $4 million dollars. City projections show that just the city of Trinidad could lose more than $2.5 million in revenue because of the shutdown. Trinidad itself hasn't actually contributed any money to the development of the park, but city officials do see it as a revenue generator through tourism.
And this could have big impacts for the state park because it is currently in a very undeveloped part of the state with most roads, parking, camping areas, and trails actually on the New Mexico side of the mountain. Those services still have to be developed on the Colorado side.
Currently one idea is to develop a 4.5 mile trail from Trinidad Lake State Park to the park on Fisher's Peak. This would involve a crossover where the trail would intersect Interstate 25. However, funding for that could prove to be difficult to get under the current circumstances.
KRCC: Now, there was one issue that existed even before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted so much. Now that the land is publicly owned, the property tax income that came into the county coffers when the land was privately owned needs to be replaced. So what's happening with this?
Knowles: There is something called PILT, which stands for Payment in Lieu of Taxes. With the transfer of private land to the state, counties lose property taxes. PILT helps them to make up the loss. The amounts may seem small, about $5,000. But for some county services, such as fire protection districts, some school districts, and to a degree the Trinidad Ambulance District, that's their budget. And the current budget situation makes everything harder.
KRCC: So I guess we are in a bit of a holding pattern until we know just how bad the budget crisis is going to get.
Knowles: Yes. Everything is in slow motion right now.
Tracy Wahl produced this converstation.