Fear of Rio Blanco-style energy impact fees colored Garfield County election

Rio Blanco County, Colo. (Illustration/Google Maps)
Rio Blanco County, Colo. (Illustration/Google Maps)
Two Democrats who lost out in a nasty election for the Garfield County board of commissioners last year say the main reason they were targeted by the oil and gas industry was something that happened earlier in 2008 in neighboring Rio Blanco County.

“Three extremely conservative Rio Blanco County commissioners unanimously passed very substantial impact fees, and as a result they have the money to fix the roads, they have the money to hire deputy county sheriffs, they have the money to do these things that we don’t,” said Rifle attorney and former Garfield County judge Steve Carver, who lost to Republican high school administrator Mike Samson last year.

The three-member board of county commissioners in Rio Blanco, to the north of gas-rich Garfield County, is comprised of Republicans who saw the need for additional fees to pay for the increasing pressure put on roads, bridges, law enforcement and other county services and facilities by the booming natural-gas industry.

“The handwriting was on the wall: How do we deal with the impacts of something like this?” Ken Parsons, chairman of the Rio Blanco Board of County Commissioners, told the Associated Press in May 2008.

Democrat Stephen Bershenyi, a Rifle blacksmith and artist who unsuccessfully ran against Republican John Martin last year, said the oil and gas industry spared no expense — or dirty tactic — in turning back the Democrats because they feared the same type of impact fee in Garfield County.

“One of the things that scared them the most was what happened in Rio Blanco County,” Bershenyi said. “The county commission, which is a Republican board, decided to charge the energy industry impact fees for each well permit issued. By August of last year [Rio Blanco] County had already brought in more than $6 million in impact fees from the energy industry from wells that they were drilling.”

Rio Blanco charges just under $18,000 per well, with the vast majority of that money going toward road construction and maintenance. An impact fee support study conducted in 2007 estimated the county would have collected $22.7 million had the fee been in place during the heart of the boom (from 2000 to 2006).

Over the next 15 years, when Rio Blanco expects to see another 16,500 wells drilled — with some studies suggesting the next natural gas boom will shift there from Garfield — the county expects to generate $292 million. Still, that won’t cover its estimated $343 million infrastructure tab if its population triples, as predicted.

“[Implementing impact fees] was one of the things that I was advocating that Garfield County do immediately, because we should have done it from the very beginning,” Bershenyi said.

Parsons and Rio Blanco County Administrator Pat Hooker didn’t return calls requesting comment on the impact fees Tuesday, but the groundbreaking step — the first such fee imposed in Colorado — definitely raised eyebrows not only in the rest of the state but throughout the gas-producing Rocky Mountain West. According to the AP’s May 2008 report:

Bob Gallagher, head of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, said there are no similar fees in his state. “But if our Birkenstock-wearing friends in Colorado have a chance to pass it in Colorado, there’s a chance it will come across the border,” Gallagher said. “It’s a little bizarre that people want to continue to bite the hand that feeds them.”

Bershenyi, without divulging his choice of footwear, said the 4,000 active wells in Garfield County could have provided about $60 million for sorely needed infrastructure if a more conservative $15,000-per-well impact fee — Garfield’s wells aren’t quite as deep as Rio Blanco’s — had been charged.

“When you throw the economic downturn in, [Garfield] County is strapped, and they thought they had a rainy day fund that was really going to put them in good shape, and what they found out was it was woefully short of the goals they needed to carry forward with the services that are being requested of them,” said Bershenyi, who in April was elected to the Glenwood Springs City Council.

Martin, the longtime Republican commissioner, told the Colorado Independent in April that Garfield County had set aside $80 million to weather the recession and slowdown in drilling stemming from plunging commodity prices.

“Hopefully we’ve done enough to survive the downturn because that downturn is going to last for many years,” Martin said at the time.

“What it is is there’s $80 million coming into the county, but $80 million has been spent,” Carter said when asked about the county’s reserves. “He doesn’t have a rainy day fund. That’s totally bogus.”

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