County proceeds with COVID relief funds

Forging ahead with planned capital projects

By Katherine Nettles

Gunnison County has decided to continue with its plans to work on two major capital projects and a few smaller ones this year, while also paring down the budget in some other areas to prepare for lost revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The county is planning to also create an emergency relief fund of about $615,000 to help local businesses and employees affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

At their meeting on April 7, county commissioners agreed with county manager Matthew Birnie’s overall caution to proceed conservatively with county funds, but to move aggressively on all plans to bring outside money into the county.

This means continuing plans for major projects such as the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport renovation; building a new library in Gunnison; building affordable housing on Lot 22 in Gunnison; and pursuing a geothermal project for the Blackstock government building in Gunnison.

It also means providing emergency relief funds to businesses where possible, while looking at medium- and long-term economic plans.

“The capital projects we are working on will bring tens of millions of dollars to this county. It sends a strong message that we will continue investing here,” Birnie said.

The county has a bit more than $4.5 million in unreserved general funds. “That includes our TABOR emergency reserves, which we could spend based on the declared emergency, but I do not recommend that we do,” said Birnie. He also estimated that the county would need to use between $400,000 and $500,000 in additional general funds to replace lost sales tax revenue to keep up with current debt services on existing projects.”

Birnie noted that county finance director Linda Nienhueser and he “tried to … find money that wouldn’t affect our fund balances, would not affect materially our financial position … and I think we’ve come up with a significant amount of money that could be applied toward COVID relief efforts, whatever they may be,” said Birnie.

He estimated that the county would be affected economically for about 18 months by public health orders, which Nienhueser has estimated might cost up to $2.6 million, or half the county’s reserves.

Based on those estimates, Birnie suggested the commissioners look solely at discretionary funds, “so that we can maintain our services, maintain our ability to manage this response and keep our folks employed and to help others in the community.”

Birnie came up with just over $200,000 from the commissioner’s and county manager’s budget, and another $400,000 in contingencies set aside “just for these types of situations,” to total about $615,000 to put towards COVID-19 relief.  But he cautioned against using it all right away. He said he feels it’s a good balance of being aggressive enough to offer something but also not putting projects and employees at risk.

Commissioner Jonathan Houck asked what kind of reimbursement the county anticipates from federal relief funds, and Birnie said there is no way to know yet.

“We’ve never had anything like this where every jurisdiction in the United States is impacted and looking for the same thing from the same pot of dollars. My view of that is we will look at it when it comes into the treasury,” Birnie said.

Nienhueser also pointed out that the FEMA reimbursement often occurs in small increments and takes up to four or five years.

Commissioner John Messner said as he has been sitting in industry groups and economic task forces, he is hearing that businesses are getting creative and working together.

Messner said, “The challenges that they are facing are significant. Most have availed themselves to the federal programs … but the reality is that many of these programs will take weeks before disbursing funds to the local businesses and in turn to the employees. So I think there is some need to provide immediate assistance as we can for those businesses and those employees.”

Commissioner Roland Mason said he would like to look into the housing angle for locals, because “I feel that housing and employment go hand in hand.” He sits on the board of the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority and reported, ”We’re exploring some avenues to hopefully leverage some state money,” as well.

The commissioners all agreed that there would be short-term, medium-term and long-term needs. The One Valley Prosperity Partnership leadership council is working to flesh out some of the longer-term needs, and the commissioners were all interested in offering businesses and employees some short-term bridging assistance until federal funds come in, using a “pay it forward,” concept where assistance could be repaid in a revolving fund.

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