Ryan Summerlin April 8, 2013
Local road projects, campsites and community programs could be at risk as the impacts of an $85 billion federal spending cut seep through to Summit County.
Local and state officials say letters have been arriving from national-level agencies over the last few weeks since an across-the-board budget cut known as sequester took effect March 1, promising 5 percent funding reductions – in some cases equating to tens of thousands or even millions of dollars.
Locally, Summit County government and the U.S. Forest Service stand to take the greatest hits in funding as the sequestration trickles down, although the extent or scope of the impact is not yet clear.
Officials with local towns say they do not expect to see any significant impacts from the cuts.
Summit County government stands to lose roughly $25,000 annually in federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) funding, which is used to support the road and bridge department.
“It’s not a huge amount of money, but it is real money and we would have to see what that would mean to our road and bridge department,” Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said. “It’s safe to say that there are still some unknowns.”
Gibbs said the cuts will not immediately impact planned road projects.
PILT funding is money the county receives as compensation for lost property tax revenue on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service that cannot be developed.
A local funding stream that supports programs like After Prom, Dialogue Over Dinner, Make a Difference Day and Healthy Kids Colorado could also be at risk for cuts due to sequester. The Drug Free Community Grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to the local department of social services to fund the community programs could be reduced by 5 percent in two years when the current 10-year funding cycle ends.
The Forest Service is also being impacted by the cuts, although it’s unclear if local users and recreationalists in Summit County will feel the impacts. Forest officials say sequester will cause significant reductions in services across the country which could have far-reaching economic impacts in areas like Summit County that rely on forest-related recreation.
“Impacts on cuts in recreation at specific forests and grasslands are still being determined,” U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesperson Courtney Rowe said. “The Forest Service is planning for the possible closure of 670 campgrounds, trailheads and picnic sites around the country in peak-use season in the spring and summer and are still determining which exactly those areas will be. The closing of these recreation sites would result in the loss of the opportunity for as many as 1.6 million visitors to national forests, harming the economies of remote rural communities that depend on recreation dollars.”
Gibbs said Forest Service funding for wildfire suppression and preparedness efforts is also on the chopping block, with as much as $225 million scheduled to be taken out of the budget nationally.
“For us locally in Summit County, when it comes to preparing it’s really a partnership,” Gibbs said. “So when we have a major partner that’s going to be experiencing some major cuts for not only fire suppression, but preparedness, that’s a real negative for us.”
In the past, local governments and private homeowners and associations have partnered with the Forest Service to remove beetle-killed trees that could threaten neighborhoods, trails, critical watersheds or other key areas if involved in a wildfire.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Transportation faces the possibility of $15 to $30 million in cuts from federal revenue sources if the sequester continues into the upcoming fiscal year, a reduction transportation officials say could hit road projects across the state.
“If a decrease of that size takes effect it will impact our construction program,” CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson said. “That’s some pretty big change.”
CDOT is currently funding a number of road projects in and around Summit County, including an ongoing effort to widen Highway 9 to two lanes in both directions between Frisco and Breckenridge and an expansion of Interstate 70 at the Twin Tunnels to help alleviate peak-period traffic between Denver and the mountains.