Natural resources manager argues to reinstate position

Grants could be used fill budgetary void

Members of the Moffat County Natural Resources Department grappled with ways to deal with budget cuts during a Friday workshop with the Board of County Commissioners.

To balance the 2003 budget, the Board of Commissioners cut Ann Franklin's position as the Natural Resources Department specialist in December. Franklin spent about 45 percent of her time developing and implementing the Moffat County fire plan. Her responsibilities also included developing the Moffat County sage grouse conservation plan, building a Geographic Information Systems database, and handling administrative duties. Her termination left her department with one employee, department director Jeff Comstock.

Franklin and Comstock presented several options to the Board of Commissioners so that Franklin's work could continue. Franklin plans to go on maternity leave in two weeks. She will come into the office four hours a week to perform administrative duties until she moves to Meeker at the end of March when her job is scheduled to be terminated.

Comstock's first suggestion was to continue the natural resources specialist position as it exists now. Throughout January, the Board of Commissioners has been reviving programs that were cut in December.

But Commissioner Darryl Steele said that the resurrection of those programs and the reopening of closed buildings, such as the Moffat County Courthouse Annex and Lutrell Barn, are examples of the county being responsive to citizens. It's not a change of direction, he said.

Those programs have been brought back at no cost to the county, Commissioner Les Hampton added. Hampton and Steele did not seem inclined to continue the specialist position if the money would come from county coffers.

Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos couldn't make the meeting because she was attending a Bureau of Land Management forum in Las Vegas.

"If the money isn't in the general fund, I can't help you," Hampton told Comstock. By the end of the workshop, the consensus seemed to be that grant money would be the best way to continue Franklin's work.

Mike Tetreault of The Nature Conservancy, an environmental conservation organization, has contacted Comstock by letter and offered to help find funds to continue work on the county fire plan. Potential funding sources include a national fire plan grant, a Bureau of Land Management cost-share program and the Department of Wildlife Habitat Partnership Program.

In the letter, Tetreault wrote, "It is very clear that Moffat County is in a position to emerge as a national leader in integrating private and public lands planning. As I know the county is suffering from a fiscal challenge, I would like to offer that The Nature Conservancy would be willing to help find matching funds to partially support the continuation of the Fire Outreach Specialist."

The grant would only fund work on the fire plan.

Franklin was put in the awkward position of searching for funding that would pay for the work she does after she leaves. Steele asked her to search for grants during her final two weeks. Before applying for grants, Hampton said the Board of Commissioners would have to consider if the county could match the funds required by the grants.

Land Use Board members and interested community members filled about half the seats in the commissioner chambers during the workshop. Several people in attendance said they wanted to see Franklin's work continue.

But Dean Gent said the county must be aware of the influence outside entities could have on land-use policy if the county accepts grants to fund a natural resources position.

Hampton acknowledged that the county's environmental policies aren't in line with The Nature Conservancy's beliefs.

Other options for continuing Franklin's work included delegating the fire plan to a Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Agent. However, the agent that would take on those duties would be the agriculture agent, a position that was vacated last year and has not been refilled due to a hiring freeze.

Nate Balstad, Extension Office director, said Colorado State University requires education to be the focus of an extension agent's job.

The first part of the fire plan, fire fuels reduction, could fall into that category. But the second part, fire use, would be a stretch, Franklin said.

As a third option for dealing with the position cut, Franklin suggested reprioritizing Comstock's work so that he could oversee the most important aspects of her job. But that would mean cutting some of Comstock's projects.

"Frankly, it tears my gut apart to think about cutting any of these projects," Comstock said.

Hampton advised Comstock to meet with the Land Use Board to reprioritize projects. The Board of Commissioners made no decision at the meeting, preferring to wait until the next meeting when Raftopoulos is present.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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