Mesa County eyes funds withheld off mineral leases

Mesa County officials are hoping to use a nod of federal agreement as a wedge to pry money from the Interior Department that officials maintain was erroneously withheld in the first place.

Mesa County hopes to recoup at least $1.6 million in withheld federal funding.

Interior Department officials last month wrote that state legislation establishing federal mineral lease districts appeared to be sufficiently independent from county governments that those governments could receive money from one pot of federal money without reducing by a corresponding amount the money given from a different pot to the counties.

The county in June received a $1.6 million check from the Interior Department’s payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program. That amount was half of what the county would have received had the department not reduced it because the county had already received $1.6 million from federal mineral lease funds.

2012 was the second-consecutive year in which Interior offset Mesa County’s share of in-lieu payments by the amount of money that it had received from federal mineral royalties.

The county filed an appeal with Interior seeking the withheld funding.

The Interior Department’s ruling vindicated the judgment of Mesa County commissioners Craig Meis and Janet Rowland, said Craig Springer, president of the mineral-lease district board. The commissioners supported a plan to spend the money from the first installment of the mineral-lease funds rather than sit on the money, pending a resolution of differences with the Interior Department.

The mineral-lease board, which included Meis, awarded the $1.6 million to Colorado Mesa University for the establishment of an “unconventional energy epicenter.”

Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca, who asked the mineral lease board to take no action pending a resolution, said he was pleased with the Interior Department letter, but not convinced it represented a resolution.

“It was at least a communication from DoI on this FML deduction business,” Acquafresca said. “Before they’ve never even given us the courtesy of a communication. At least they didn’t say no, but they also didn’t say yes.”

In the letter, dated Dec. 21, the Interior Department voiced a preference for an elected board, but concluded that Colorado’s method of allowing county commissioners to appoint members of the mineral-lease board “would not necessarily threaten the independence” of the districts.

Meis and Rowland no longer serve on the county commission and Meis’ term on the mineral-lease board expires Tuesday.

Monday, Acquafresca and the two new commissioners, John Justman and Rose Pugliese, will decide who will replace Meis on the three-member mineral-lease board.

The actions taken so far by the district and county have set the stage for Mesa County to receive as much as $2 million a year for 20 years or more without losing an equal share of in-lieu funding, Springer said.

Other mineral lease districts have rented office space and hired staff, possible red flags for federal watchdogs, Springer said. The money awarded by the district to the university was placed in an endowment.

The mineral-lease board anticipates meeting with commissioners to discuss how best to distribute funds, district board member David Ludlam said.

The district could save money up for a super grant or use it for several small grants “or anything in between,” Ludlam said.



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