Nearly $1.5 to reimburse health and human services expenses, start stewardship program
By Katherine Nettles
Gunnison County commissioners have begun the process of allocating recently acquired federal CARES Act funding among local municipalities and various inter-agency pursuits related to coronavirus costs, using a collaboration agreement.
The top priorities are to reimburse health and human services costs and to fund a new land stewardship program through Gunnison County Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) committee to create jobs and improve public lands. The county was allotted nearly $1.5 million from the state earlier this month to reimburse local COVID-related expenses. Colorado was awarded $2.2 billion total in CARES funding, and all eligible expenses must be submitted by the end of 2020 for reimbursement.
County manager Matthew Birnie outlined his plan for the funds in a meeting with county commissioners on Tuesday, June 16.
“The state requires a ‘collaboration agreement’ among the county and the municipalities as a condition of receiving this funding or ‘opting in,’” Birnie explained. “We are in discussions with the municipalities of an approach intended to maximize the amount and impact of the funding.”
Birnie said he has spoken with the finance directors and town managers from Mt. Crested Butte, Crested Butte and the city of Gunnison. He said he would reach out to Marble and Pitkin as well. For those smaller municipalities, he used a formula based on population per capita that has been used throughout the state, but if the municipalities have additional expenses, he said, “I’m sure we can help with that too.”
The commissioners approved the overall approach and agreed to review individual projects separately as they come up.
“This particular funding mechanism is the most flexible. There is still some gray area,” said commissioner John Messner. “Some of the allowed uses could help create new programs and help with rent assistance, food, business assistance and things of that nature.”
Birnie said the first step is to cover the COVID-related costs already incurred by each town and the county. These costs are mostly related to the health and human resources from the public health crisis and economic fallout, but will not include the individual business loans the county issued in April. Birnie is compiling a spreadsheet detailing those costs.
Another priority is to help fund the STOR-led stewardship program to work with public lands agencies to mitigate or prevent heavy impact to local public lands that see many daytime and camping visitors. Community and Economic Development director Cathie Pagano updated the commissioners with exact plans and budget for the program.
Twelve weeks of work with 10 paid crew members will cost $105,000, she said. “Additionally we plan to have volunteers as part of the program,” Pagano said.
The Gunnison County Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) has agreed to contribute $5,000 to the program, while the STOR committee has agreed to contribute $20,000 from its GOCO grant programming funds. An additional 50 percent match from the National Forest Service is likely but not confirmed.
“The intent is to open positions to Gunnison County residents only,” said Pagano. “I’m not quite sure what to expect as far as applicants,” she added, and as far as demand, “We could get six, or we could get 30.”
Commissioner Jonathan Houck asked about the minimum number of people needed to make an impact. Pagano said four, as modeled by the Crested Butte Conservation Corps, which works in crews of two to four people.
Commissioners agreed to contribute $45,000 from the COVID funds for the program.
It appears there will be a remaining undesignated pool of about $280,000 available for other initiatives. Birnie, who is working to get an extension beyond 2020 for reimbursements, said if they cannot get an extension the county might consider offering another round of grants to the business community.
If the extension is granted, Birnie predicted, “Plenty of other expenses will come up.”
Messner said he wants to continue chasing other funding for COVID-related reimbursements and other economic relief efforts.
Houck said he wants to be especially careful in working with the smaller municipalities, giving them time to respond to opt in or out. “It may take a little longer to hear from them,” he said. “They are sometimes not as nimble because of their size.”