Acquafresca needs local support to save Colorado Riverfront Trail
Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca deserves credit for defending county funding for the Riverfront Trail and the Colorado Riverfront Commission. His commitment is essential to protecting it from the newly elected county commissioners.
“I campaigned in my first election and in my re-election to support the continued development of the Riverfront Trail, leveraging outside dollars as much as possible,” Acquafresca said. “Getting almost $9 for every Mesa County dollar is an opportunity we probably will not have again in the future.”
Acquafresca also said, “The Grand Valley is reclaiming the Colorado River corridor ... It’s a great community project. I’ve never heard opposition to it until this fall. Through good and bad economies, we’ve kept our nose to the grindstone.”
The opposition comes from novice County Commissioner Rose Pugliese. In an email to her tea party supporters, she announced, “John Justman and I elected to pull funding for the Riverfront Commission” from the 2014 budget.
She picked the fight by deciding to strip $17,000 in funding from the Riverfront Commission.
The Riverfront Commission is a volunteer group involved in planning and staging Riverfront events, organizing volunteers and coordinating efforts among the communities linked by the Riverfront Trail.
For 25 years, the Riverfront Commission has been supported by contributions from local governments. Most recently, those have been Grand Junction ($27,000), Palisade ($7,000), Fruita ($7,000) and the county ($17,000). The money funds a part-time staff position for the Riverfront Commission.
None of the other three Riverfront partners, despite their own budget problems, have put the Riverfront Commission on the chopping block. Why would they, when such a small investment returns so much to the community?
Most of the work on the trail is funded by Great Outdoors Colorado lottery money. Over the years, construction of the trail has brought millions of dollars, and the jobs that go with them, into the valley.
Just before the public hearing on funding the commission, Pugliese sent an email to her “Conservative Friends,” urging them to “attend (the public hearing) if you can to tell us whether or not this (part-time staff position) is how you want us to spend your hard-earned taxpayer money.”
Insisting that the Riverfront Trail is not a priority at this time, she said, “Neither John nor I can justify wasting your taxpayer money for this purpose. If there was ever a time to stand up, it is now.”
This email makes it obvious Pugliese is after more than just eliminating the county’s contribution to the Riverfront Commission’s operations. She is determined to strip all county support for the Riverfront Trail project.
“Note that the County — currently but not for long — negotiates and pays for easements along the Riverfront Trail, pays for improvements along the Riverfront Trail, does the construction work and applies for grants,” she said in her email.
Pugliese’s e-mail was a rallying call to her base. She and Justman “need your help,” the message said. The Riverfront Commission, she warned, “is out in full force to get us to give them the money they are ‘entitled’ to be paid.”
“YOU pay for that,” she assured her anti-tax supporters.
Turns out, they mostly don’t — at least not through taxes. GOCO has provided tens of millions of dollars to help build the trail. GOCO funds come from lottery proceeds; no taxes are included in its awards. It is GOCO’s constitutional means of returning lottery money to the communities that generated it.
If Mesa County does not complete the current trail project, it could be required to return $2.9 million in GOCO funding awarded to the county for finishing current trail work, Acquafresca said.
He also warned that returning these funds to GOCO could foreclose any hope of future lottery fund to support the trail.
Despite the potential cost to the county of defunding the riverfront project, Pugliese voted against using the GOCO funds to finish the work already started.
The final decision on funding for the commission and the trail will be made when the 2014 budget is finalized in December. With Pugliese implacably opposed, and Justman ambivalent, Acquafresca will need strong community support to save our trail from the reactionaries who would end the dream.