Back from Washington

Commissioners say a recent trip that cost more than $2,000 was worth it

Three Moffat County commissioners and county Natural Resources Department Director Jeff Comstock recently attended a National Association of Counties conference in Washington D.C.

The purpose of the trip was to inform people at the nation's capital about what issues are important to Northwest Colorado residents, said Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson.

According to receipts, the trip cost Moffat County taxpayers about $2,500.

This total includes airfare and hotel expenses for Comstock and Commissioner Les Hampton, as well as taxi and registration fees.

Colorado Counties, Inc. and the National Association of Counties, to which Moffat County pays membership dues, paid for airfare, hotel and fees for commissioners Marianna Raftopoulos and Dickinson.

Dickinson, who will leave office in January, said the trip was money well spent.

"A lot of those people don't have an understanding of what our issues are in Northwest Colorado," he said. "Next time we call and ask for something, it's good they've seen a face with the name. Because of these meetings, when we call and ask for an hour meeting, we get it."

Moffat County commissioners, along with commissioners from Eagle, Jackson and Mesa counties, met with Colorado representatives Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who was in town on March 26, Sen. Wayne Allard and Rep. Scott McInnis.

Raftopoulos said key issues discussed included land use, health care issues, proposed wilderness areas, coal production and telecommunication infrastructure.

In healthcare, she said they talked about critical access hospitals, which The Memorial Hospital is in the process of becoming.

The federal government created the critical access program to aid rural hospitals by providing them with cost-based reimbursements for Medicare patients.

One of the stipulations of being a critical access hospital is it can have no more than 15 inpatients at one time.

Raftopoulos said discussions were conducted with senators about increasing that number from 15 to 20 in order to help larger rural hospitals such as TMH.

The commissioners also spoke with Rep. Mark Udall, who will soon represent more of western Colorado.

"We needed to get him on board on western issues because he will soon be representing Eagle County," Raftopoulos said.

The Moffat County delegation also met with Bureau of Land Management Director Kathleen Clarke, Colorado District 5 Rep. Joel Hefley and Rep. James Hansen of Utah.

A key issue repeatedly discussed was the Citizen's Wilderness Proposal, which would designate more than 300,000 acres of public land in Moffat County as wilderness, a proposal opposed by Moffat County commissioners.

"If there is any legislation our senators will certainly carry the ball on that," Raftopoulos said. "They understand the extreme downturn we would have if those 300,000 acres are turned into wilderness."

Raftopoulos said if one were to draw a line on a map down the eastern border of Colorado, one would be able to see the extreme difference between public land designations in the western United States and eastern United States.

East of Colorado, land is all privately owned, she said.

"The key is to get congressmen in the east to understand the concept of public lands," she said. "The reason we are there is to explain it. It has to be communicated one on one."

Leaving the county to meet with people in Washington is beneficial, Raftopoulos said.

"We have created a huge network and trust system," she said. "You will not get issues heard unless you do that."

Commissioner Les Hampton agreed.

"We made appointments to meet with them in their house," he said. "It drives home how important these issues are because we've taken the time to come see them. By having all four of us go it removes any doubt that there's not a unified opinion. We showed it was that important that we all go meet with them instead of just sending one spokesperson."

Hampton, who concentrated on attending meetings dealing with agriculture and land-use issues, said attending the meetings would help generate future support in opposing issues like the Citizens' Wilderness Proposal.

"As a commissioner a large portion of your work is done in the county," he said. "But if you never left to talk to other people and one day needed some support, where would you go? To do our job as elected officials we must find a way to balance our time."

Jeff Comstock said as natural resources department director it was important that he attend the conference with the commissioners.

Unlike the commissioners, who are in office a maximum of eight years, he will be dealing with people in Washington for a long time, he said.

"This is invaluable from the standpoint of a natural resources director because these folks can make a difference in what I do," he said. "These issues don't go away. I'll be dealing with these people as long as they're in office."

Blaine Rethmeier, press secretary for Rep. McInnis, said the commissioners' visit was educational, particularly the proposed Northwest Colorado Working Landscape Trust.

"They went through the details of the landscape trust with us," he said. "Although it's still in the building process, it was a creative idea that seemed reasonable."

The Northwest Colorado Working Landscape Trust is a concept designed to bring any and all users of public lands together to create realistic and comprehensive management plans.

"Right now we're looking at different ways to address these issues," he said. "The meetings we had with the commissioners were very productive. We have a good working relationship with all of the commissioners."

Dickinson said a goal of the trip was to explain the landscape trust proposal.

"We wanted to give delegates a better understanding of what we're proposing and why we're doing it," he said.

The commissioners flew into Washington D.C. on Tuesday, Feb. 26 and left on Monday, March 4.

The National Association of Counties Conference was held March 1 through 5.

The conference addressed what counties need to do to ensure homeland security.

"We left before the conference was over because we feel the best time to catch congressional folks is the days before the conference begins," he said. "We went early and made all of our visits. We were there for the important part of the conference when policy is set."

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