GOCO leaders not in a hurry to go into debt for open space
SUMMIT COUNTY – The past year’s leadership changes at Great Outdoors Colorado might mean more money for Summit County open space and recreation, despite criticisms that the lottery-funded organization won’t go into debt for open space.
Open space advocates on the Front Range who successfully campaigned two years ago for up to $115 million in bonds are criticizing new GOCO leaders for not using a dime.
The measure passed two years ago, just as Colorado’s growth boom started to slow.
“”The urgency we all felt in 2001 (to save open spaces) hasn’t changed. If interest rates are low and land prices are rising, why wouldn’t you take advantage of it?” said Ron Stewart, director of Boulder County Open Space.
The board has begun work on bonding for open space, said GOCO Chairman T. Wright Dickinson. A committee soon will review potential ratings, which evaluate a project’s financial soundness and would be used to set repayment costs.
State Treasurer Mike Coffman responded immediately to the Rocky Mountain News story Monday that said GOCO has not bonded.
“I was disappointed to read that GOCO has not yet taken advantage of favorable market conditions,” Coffman said in a letter to Dickinson. “I would be happy to offer (GOCO) assistance in developing a strategy to rapidly put your bonding authority to work … to preserve the natural treasures that make Colorado a unique and wondrous state.”
Some communities in Colorado have bonded millions the past several years on their own to preserve lands during the growth boom.
They will use future open space tax dollars to repay land acquisition costs later, plus interest. Summit County’s approach is to buy as it has the money, not to go into millions of dollars of debt and pay interest, said Todd Robertson, Summit County director of open space.
Summit County could be in a better position than other counties if GOCO did use bonding as a tool for securing open space, Robertson said. Summit County’s open space funding comes from property taxes, not sales taxes.
Property taxes are constant. Sales taxes fluctuate with the economy and spending is down across the state.
But Robertson wasn’t entirely sure if the county would see its share.
“If they started using the $115 million in bonds I don’t know whether we’d see any more funding or not,” Robertson said.
In 2001 when Colorado voters approved GOCO’s bonding ability, Summit County commissioners said they were concerned the move to bond would not benefit this area as much as other areas. The county wasn’t receiving its fair share then, so why would bonding change anything, they reasoned.
Summit County has spent $10 million out of its own pocket on open space, leveraging an additional $53 million from GOCO and other sources, Robertson said. Where the county has spent $758,000 in GOCO money for projects the past several years, other areas have received millions more.
But spending bond dollars has not really been a topic of new GOCO leaders’ discussion, said Summit County Manager Ron Holliday.
Last May, Gov. Bill Owens appointed Holliday to the GOCO board. Holliday was one of more than a half-dozen new appointees that changed the face of the board as it entered its post-formation era.
Since May, Holliday said, the board has been focused on re
arranging the way local governments get GOCO money.
The board has focused on clearing out the specific grant programs to make way for wide-open applications for projects designed by the local agencies themselves, Holliday said.
For example, if a community wanted dollars for a park and trails, it would not have to wait around for a park and trails grant to come up.
The board will try this approach for the next couple years, Holliday said. It will be harder to judge grant applications without specific grant programs, Holliday said. A wider range of projects from Colorado communities will compete for GOCO’s grants for local government.
GOCO funds are supposed to be distributed evenly among four categories: open space, local government, state parks and wildlife.
Holliday and Robertson hope the shift in GOCO’s priorities will benefit the county.
Christine McManus can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 229 or cmcmanus@summitdaily. com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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