DENVER — Freshman Sen. Kerry Donovan thinks she’s found a way to help shield small communities from devastating economic losses when their largest employers lay off workers or go out of business.

Spurred in part by what happened in Delta County with the loss of hundreds of jobs when the Elk Creek Mine located just across the Gunnison County line was idled last year because of a mine fire, Donovan has introduced a bill that would offer small emergency grants to communities to help affected workers get back on their feet immediately.

The former Vail city councilwoman, who last fall was elected to represent Senate District 5 that includes Delta County, said her hope is to stop or at least delay the dominos that later fall when something like that happens to small communities, such as revenue losses at area businesses and school districts losing students.

“This is intended toward community preservation, and the way that we’re getting at that is through an emergency grant that would respond with urgency … for things like re-employment, intensive training and employment services,” she said. “The idea is to be very reactionary, very nimble, to try to react quickly to keep people in town so they’re not looking for other jobs elsewhere.”

The measure, SB36, would create a Rural Economic Emergency Assistance Grant program that would go only to the smallest and hardest hit communities that suffer from a plant closure or have layoffs, including job losses that include whole industries, such as coal mining or natural gas drilling.

The grant program would start small, asking for about $2 million to get started, and would be limited to areas of the state with 50,000 or fewer residents. The program would be administered by the Department of Local Affairs, which also would provide grant writers to help communities get the money. Once an application is made, the department would be required to rule on it within 60 days, and the money would be on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Michelle Haynes, executive director of a Montrose-based nonprofit group that helps Western Slope communities with such issues, said Donovan’s bill offers a good short-term solution that could help mitigate long-term problems.

“When we see these families having to leave, that puts a downward pressure on our housing market, it puts a downward pressure on the school district (and) it puts pressure on the health care system,” Haynes said. “Bringing in flexible money for the counties to be able to use in ways that they see fit to keep these families in their communities and provide additional job training for them would be very helpful.”

Haynes’ group, Region 10 League for Economic Assistance and Planning, provides programs and services to help local people in 18 western Colorado communities and six counties, including Montrose and Delta counties.

In August, the group won a $245,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. With that money, coupled with grants of $100,000 from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and $25,000 from Delta and Gunnison counties, the group is studying ways to diversify the economies in those two counties to help cushion local communities from future economic hardships as the one brought on by Elk Creek Mine closure.

It’s difficult to say how much support Donovan, a Democrat, will have for her bill in the Colorado Senate, where Republicans have the majority. GOP leaders have sent it to the Senate State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee, rather than panels that oversee business, labor or local government issues.

That committee is considered a kill committee, where oftentimes political differences come into play when considering legislation regardless of a bill’s merits. Last year, Donovan won her hotly contested Senate seat against Republican Don Suppes, the mayor of Orchard City.

Still, Donovan said she’s hopeful she’ll be able to persuade committee members that her idea is worthy of advancing because it is aimed at helping rural Colorado maintain itself and directly help its residents.

She said she hopes committee members, most of whom live in larger communities that wouldn’t qualify for the grants, will realize how devastating it is for a small community to lose what other areas of the state might consider insignificant. Losing a few dozen jobs in small communities is like larger communities losing thousands of jobs, she said.

“The job losses in Delta equate to about 19,000 jobs in the Denver metro area,” she said. “If the Denver metro area lost 19,000 jobs, it would be a Denver Post headline every day until it was fixed.”

The chairman of the committee is Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction. While his Senate district no longer includes any part of Delta County, he did represent the eastern end of the county when he served in the House over the past four years.

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing

The Daily Sentinel: Charles Ashby

January 18, 2015

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