The Colorado River District board in January expects to finalize a framework for considering applications for shares of the $4.2 million in annual funds it will be able to offer to partners for spending on projects thanks to a tax measure approved by voters last month.
District General Manager Andy Mueller told the board in a meeting Thursday that he also expects to be bringing it project proposals by January.
Voters in the 15-county district overwhelming approved the district’s proposal to roughly double its property tax rate to 0.5 mills. Seventy-two percent of voters backed the measure. While 14% of the tax revenue is to be used to shore up the district’s operational budget, the rest is to be used to partner with applicants on a range of water-related projects.
An implementation plan the board previously approved has pledged that the district will prioritize funding of projects meeting needs in one or more of five categories — agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.
It also committed to spending the money in a way that over time disperses the benefits geographically across the district and between categories, and uses the money as a catalyst for securing matching funds from other sources.
The framework Mueller is proposing to the board provides detail regarding how the district can carry out what it has committed to do. For example, the framework calls for tracking spending over a five-year running average to assure long-term geographic and categorical equity in spending, even if equity doesn’t occur in some years. Mueller told the board the framework he has laid out for board consideration is intended to memorialize the program commitment made to voters, and to give future district boards, staff and the public a document to turn to see the program’s history and guiding principles, and why the money is allocated the way it is.
Mueller is proposing that funding requests be considered by the district year-round, with the board able to act on them at its quarterly meetings or special meetings as it sees fit. He also asked the board if it wanted to let the district general manager independently approve funding requests of up to $25,000, while limiting the cumulative total of what the manager can approve to no more than $250,000 a year. Board members provided feedback suggesting that the manager should be able approve applications of up to $50,000 apiece, with a higher annual cap, and that there be an appeals process when the manager denies an application.
Marc Catlin, the district board member representing Montrose County, said he thinks the process the proposed framework lays out is something people can understand, allowing for applying for funds without the need for a grant writer’s help.
“I would rather put money into the ground rather than into a grant writer’s pocket,” he said.
He said he also likes the idea of the process being nimble enough so that if things occur such as a landslide wiping out a ditch, the district can be the place for people to go for funds.
Steve Acquafresca, Mesa County’s representative on the board, said he hopes there will be a mechanism for accumulating dollars for large projects more costly than what could be covered by an annual request, something Mueller said he thinks is possible under the framework he is proposing.
Tom Alvey, the Delta County board representative, worried that the district not so tie its hands based on concerns about spending funds equitably that it becomes focused, for example, on trying to find an infrastructure project to fund because it’s behind in infrastructure spending, when there may be good reason to fund something else instead.
“I think it’s important that we find the flexibility to reward good projects,” he said.
The river district plans to hire a projects manager to oversee the new funding program. The district won’t be refilling a communications position, so adding the project manager will result in no net gain in employees.
With the tax measure’s passage, the district also now is planning to replace Jim Pokrandt, who is retiring this month as communications affairs director. Mueller had planned not to replace Pokrandt under a previously approved 2021 budget that was drafted based on the conservative assumption that the tax wouldn’t pass. The board approved a revised budget Thursday to reflect the tax measure’s passage.