WALDO CANYON FIRE: Area seeks help from state, feds

June 24, 2012

Government officials Democrat and Republican alike expressed serious concern over the Waldo Canyon fire on Sunday, and said with one voice that every resource available will be brought to bear.

El Paso County and the city of Colorado Springs issued a joint statement Sunday declaring the fire to be a formal local disaster. That helps them draw down federal and state finances to help fight the fire.

“This is obviously something beyond the resources of any one agency,” Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach said in a statement. “This declaration is the next step needed for an incident of this size.”

But it’s not always that simple for the state, said Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs. Lambert is a member of the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, which puts together the state budget every year.

Lambert said the state may have significant problems helping out with emergency funding, because emergency funds were raided 10 years ago and were never backfilled.

To fulfill legal requirements to set aside millions of dollars to help tackle wildfires and other emergencies, Lambert said, the state has been putting hard assets such as buildings into emergency funds instead of cash.

That means the state can’t just write a check — it has to liquify those assets first. For example, it would have to sell a building it owns to get the money.

This past legislative session, Lambert said, the JBC earmarked $13 million for emergencies, even though JBC staff recommended $25 million. The $13 million will be available July 1, when the new fiscal year starts.

“This is just not the way to run an emergency system,” Lambert said. “It’s ludicrous.”

But Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, bristled at the suggestion that the state wouldn’t be able to open its wallet wide enough to put the fire out.

“Before making charges that it’s ludicrous, show me a bill that’s not paid,” Morse said.

Morse said that what the state usually does is front the money to pay for emergency services and settle the bill later. That, he said, works perfectly well.

Eric Brown, spokesman for Gov. John Hickenlooper, said in an email that more than $25 million has already been diverted to firefighting efforts, taken from various reserve accounts and money in the current state budget that is “not yet unencumbered.”

Brown also said that on large fires, the federal government reimburses the state up to 75 percent of what they spend.

Contact John Schroyer: 476-4825
Twitter @Johnschroyer
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