Each month the Sun Advocate presents two views of the same subject as columnists Terry Willis and Tom McCourt see it.
The impact of impact funds
In the past few years, Carbon County has been ground zero in a massive effort to develop major gas fields in eastern Utah. Drill rigs, pipelines, compressor stations, pumps, platforms, and trucks can be seen everywhere. Access roads spread like spider webs all over the county. It’s been good for the local economy. Lots of people have been put to work, incomes and tax revenues have increased, and land that was once lizard and tick habitat is now worth millions.
The county has been receiving royalties and severance tax payments of millions of dollars each year and money is available from the state to help offset the impacts of energy development. Much of it is managed through the county’s Recreation and Transportation Special Service District, and funds are available through the state Community Impact Board too. The idea is to help the county cope with increased traffic and population, update infrastructure like water, sewer, and roads, and to help with increased demand for services like police, fire and ambulance coverage, as well as recreation. The money is finite. The payments won’t last forever. We have one chance to spend the money and then it’s gone forever.
So what are we doing with the funds? The new convention center is nice. Improvements at the fairgrounds were long overdue. The new ambulance garage and county shop are first rate. The Mesozoic Gardens should be impressive. The ATV trail is a great idea. A five-acre fishpond at the fairgrounds will delight the kids. And the new county gun range is the best in the state. But are there other things we should be considering?
At special service district meetings in January and February 2006, representatives of the Bill Barrett Corporation offered the county one million dollars as seed money to help fix the Nine Mile Canyon road. The Barrett people said that an improved all-season road was critical to their operations on the Tavaputs Plateau and the road project needed to be completed by 2009. BBC offered to partner with the county to improve the road for the mutual benefit of both. An improved Nine Mile road would be of great economic value to the county. Improved access to the Tavaputs gas field would aid development and increase county revenues, and some drilling companies, vendors, and support industries might move from the Uintah Basin to Carbon County. Carbon is a more central location in the gas fields of eastern Utah and we have a railroad. The road project would also help to solve the ongoing issues of safety and dust control in the canyon.
But since those meetings, 15 months have passed and nothing of substance has happened to the Nine Mile Road. An engineering study was done. A few tons of rotomill have been strategically placed on parts of the road. A corner or two has been widened, but the road is still the same road we had in January 2006. It is narrow, winding, dusty, rutted, potholed, and washboardy – totally unacceptable in the eyes of the gas companies. And there seems to be no comprehensive plan, as yet, to upgrade and improve it. No construction is scheduled. Unfortunately for us, Duchesne County is busy fixing their side of the Nine Mile road. They expect a good return on their investment.
Another worthy project is a new dam on the Price River at Colton. I know this has been studied and debated since the 1930s, but it’s time to do it now. The county needs the water to grow, and what better use of energy impact funds? The Colton or White River Dam would supply both culinary and irrigation water to sustain the county into the twenty-second century. Our population potential and economic opportunities would be greatly enhanced and our grandchildren will thank us. Today that unused water is flowing into the Green River and Lake Powell where Los Angeles is happy to use it for us.
And so, I think it’s time to take a good look at what we expect for the future of our county. Are we spending our efforts and our treasure to our best advantage? What do we expect to get back from our investments? Is it time to re-evaluate?
We benefit from impact funds
We have always had the impact of being in the middle of the energy extraction industry with the coal mines going strong here. Because of this Carbon County has ridden the boom and bust cycle of economic health and struggle for almost as long as it has been in existence. We would be sitting high on the hog if the impact funds only came to the counties directly connected to the extraction industries, but indeed it is available to the entire state. We have had to compete with all the other communities for the use of the money and in many years we have been on the short end of the straw.
Our community has invested money in sidewalks, road improvements and other infrastructure. We still need more, especially improving our sidewalks, but hopefully that is still on the table. But our community also deserves to have some things that help draw in new residents to live and work in our community. Talking to our city leaders and economic development people, we struggle to attract physicians and larger businesses to the area because they fear that there is little to do here. Quality of life is a huge impact in attracting people to visit and stay in our area.
Spending money on things that seem like fluff to some is also a long term investment in our community. Some of the choices are not my top pick for what we apply the funds to, but I am only a small piece of a large community and the things that improve the quality of life vary greatly among us.
The ambulance garage and the county shop were two areas that were long overdue and are just plain necessary to provide quality services. You may not agree with some of the requests, but each of these things as a whole increase the value of our community and its appeal to those who may entertain the notion to move here.
The road through Nine Mile has been an issue for improvement long before Bill Barrett decided to develop a gas field around it. When it was mainly used by the locals and tourists, the problems were small. As logging interests began to move into the area, the road began to deteriorate even more. Add gas well, heavy equipment trucks and workers using it to cut from Carbon County to the Uintah Basin and the whole thing is now demanding action. The problem is that it no longer can be fixed with a grader and some rotomill.
I’m sure it is totally unacceptable to the gas companies. They have been a large part of creating this problem that is approaching critical mass. When engineering issues are factored in the cost to bring the road up to gas company standards continue to balloon. Once it is paved the costs to maintain it will increase the county road budget. In addition the increased need to patrol the road as traffic and law enforcement issues grow will be a must.
One million dollars is small potatoes for a big problem that didn’t need that level of fixing until the gas companies needed it. Just as in Salt Lake with the Real soccer stadium, it seems like there is a lot of expectations of public funding to increase private company profits. We can’t walk away from the problem, but it irks me that in the end it will be a huge investment that despite all the ballyhoo from the oil and gas industry, we may or may not see much return from.
As we have seen in the past, as soon as the profits dry up companies are gone like the wind seeking new areas to develop, leaving the old ones behind like cowboy ghost towns dying in the sunset.
I will not even go into the reasons a dam isn’t feasible. We are still at war with our neighboring county to maintain enough water rights to fill Scofield. Just because there is water flowing in a river does not mean its not serving a purpose. We are required to let the water flow down stream for others.
The impact funds are not for a small and privilege few to decide and use. I think we are doing a good job of finding ways to use the funds to benefit us all. Not all of us are in on every project, but as a whole we are all getting a small piece of the pie.