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I-25 widening, crackdown on illegal pot grows could benefit from El Paso County budget tweaks

December 5, 2017 Updated: December 6, 2017 at 7:21 am
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photo - Authorities busted an illegal marijuana grow Thursday afternoon, August 3, 2017, in east El Paso County. (KKTV photo)
Authorities busted an illegal marijuana grow Thursday afternoon, August 3, 2017, in east El Paso County. (KKTV photo) 

El Paso County could greenlight financial boosts for a variety of projects and programs, including the widening of Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock, through its annual budgeting process.

Other tentative beneficiaries are an initiative that could help ease overcrowding at the El Paso County Jail and an effort by the Sheriff's Office to bust illegal marijuana grow operations.

On Tuesday, county commissioners directed administrators to tweak a proposed 2018 budget document accordingly; however, the allocations won't be finalized until next week, when commissioners will vote to adopt next year's spending plan.

The beefed-up appropriations would come from projected increases in sales tax collections and operational savings, according to Nicola Sapp, the county's chief financial officer.

Highlights from the hearing:

- Commissioners asked that an additional $1.5 million in excess government revenues be spent on the widening of the roughly 18-mile I-25 "Gap," which would up the county's 2018 contribution to the project to $7.5 million. On Nov. 7, voters gave the county permission to spend at least $6 million of a roughly $14.5 million revenue surplus on the widening. (Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR, ties year-to-year increases in government revenues to population growth and inflation; Revenues that come in above the TABOR-mandated limit can only be spent on voter-approved purposes.)

If commissioners approve the additional $1.5 million, it would bring state and local leaders one step closer to coming up with the $350 million needed to pay for the widening. They've identified about $276 million so far and are waiting to hear if the project has received another $65 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Under the project proposal, two toll lanes would be added to the interstate, widening it from two to three lanes in each direction. State transportation officials recently said construction could begin on the project in late 2018 and end in spring 2021 if all the funding comes through.

Commissioner Mark Waller, who requested that the additional $1.5 million go toward the widening, called the Gap "one of the biggest public safety and economic issues facing our region right now" during the hearing.

- The county's Pretrial Services Program is also likely to see a significant increase in its budget, from about $118,000 this year to roughly $418,000 next year. The program helps advise 4th Judicial District judges as to whether those accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes should be eligible to be released on personal recognizance bonds, or written promises to appear in court. By identifying more who qualify for the bonds, a strengthened Pretrial Services could reduce the jail population by roughly 200 at any given time, county officials have said.

With a staff of just two PR bond commissioners, El Paso County's program pales in comparison to other similar efforts in larger Colorado counties - including Jefferson, Douglas, Arapahoe and Larimer - where pretrial services initiatives have budgets upwards of $1 million and more than 10 staff members.

"What the commissioners will hopefully approve next week would be a dramatic improvement to what we have now," said County Community Services Director Tim Wolken, who oversees the program, following Tuesday's hearing.

The additional money would be used to hire six full-time staff members and several part-time staff members to assist with case management and intake. Under the current budget proposal, Pretrial Services' annual allocation would be increased to about $518,000 in 2019. Ultimately, the goal is to increase the number of assessments the program performs annually from about 1,600 to about 5,000, Wolken said.

Commissioners also asked that the budget for Wolken's department be raised another $70,000 to hire a coordinator for the local Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an advisory board made up of officials from the 4th Judicial District, area law enforcement agencies and other organizations.

- At the request of County Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr., a line item was added to the proposed budget that would give the Sheriff's Office $100,000 to combat illegal marijuana home grows. Sheriff Bill Elder is planning to ramp up enforcement efforts beginning next year when a new state law takes effect. Elder did not appeal to commissioners for more money at a recent budget hearing; however, he told them there are more than 550 home grows in the county that are either out of compliance with state law or will be in violation once the rule takes effect on Jan. 1, reducing the limit on allowed plant counts for recreational and medical marijuana growers at noncommercial operations. . Gonzalez, a vocal opponent of legal marijuana, cited the grows as a public safety issue at a conference in Colorado Springs last week before he publicly called out Gov. John Hickenlooper and accused the state of ignoring the potential negative effects of marijuana because the industry generates so much tax revenue.

- The Public Works Department could receive another $1 million in funding for local infrastructure improvements. Thhat would add to $6 million that has been set aside for projects - including safety improvements to roadways such as South Academy Boulevard and Marksheffel Road and Meadowbrook Parkway - listed on the TABOR excess ballot question. Officials have said the funding will help the county begin to address a lengthy backlog of deferred maintenance costs that swelled to more than $2 million during the Great Recession of 2008.

- Commissioners also opted to tentatively add about $300,000 the county's roughly $2.5 million 2018 reserve fund balance. The fund, used for county services and projects to respond to disasters, diminished during the years that followed the Black Forest and Waldo Canyon fires and catastrophic flooding in El Paso County, said county CFO Sapp.

The public will have a final chance to comment on the proposed budget at a hearing next Tuesday that will take place following commissioners' regular meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. at Centennial Hall, 200 S. Cascade Avenue.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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