By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
FOUNTAIN — “There is no problem that defies a solution,” said Gov. Bill Ritter, extolling the bipartisan efforts to create the Fountain Creek Watershed District. The bill, which Ritter signed into law last month, will provide funding opportunities and resolve longtime disputes between El Paso County and Pueblo County over improving and maintaining the creek.
Minutes before the meeting at the Fountain City Hall on Monday, Ritter had encountered about 15 demonstrators decrying his “solution” to a more pressing problem that will directly impact this small military community.
The governor had announced his decision to sign into law a bill to block the Army’s push to add about 85,000 acres to the 238,000-acre Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site northeast of Trinidad. Ritter told The Pueblo Chieftain — an outspoken critic of the Army’s expansion plan — that he intended to sign the bill into law this coming weekend.
House Bill 1317 prohibits selling or leasing land overseen by the Colorado State Land Board to the Army for training. The measure riddles the proposed training site with off-limit pockets totaling nearly 20,000 acres.
“I have worked with the ranching community, talked to them about their issues, (and) we just settled on the fact that if the U.S. Army was going to take property, they really needed to make its case. They haven’t done that,” Ritter told the newspaper.
The unwelcome news spurred the El Paso County Republican Party to hastily organize a protest in this community southeast of Fort Carson. Demonstrators accused Ritter of undermining the local economy and national defense.
A couple of protestors said they’re worried that the bill, if signed into law, will dissuade the Army from expanding Fort Carson’s training area and from transferring thousands of soldiers to the post.
The Army post is the second largest employer in the state and a boon to El Paso County’s economy — but it’s the main revenue generator in Fountain.
Staring into television cameras, county GOP Chair Kay Rendleman demanded that Ritter veto HB 1317.
“Send e-mails, make phone calls, tweet and blog. Tell the governor, ‘Enough is enough!’” implored Rendleman.
Colorado Springs City Councilman Darryl Glenn predicted that if the governor signs the bill into law, he would undermine local support for his re-election bid next year. In 2006, Ritter captured an unprecedented 39.7 percent of the vote from the county where Republicans outnumber Democrats, 2-to-1.
“If this bill goes into law, we will remember,” declared Glenn, holding a “Support Our Troops” sign.
El Paso County Commissioner Wayne Williams criticized Ritter for his refusal to veto HB 1317 as well as signing into law Senate Bill 228 — coined the FASTER bill. The latter, he said, does not create a permanent funding source for transportation projects — and results in “cutting $600 million from the county’s project funds and a loss of 4,800 jobs.”
“He wasn’t elected to give the shaft to folks in El Paso County,” asserted Williams.
HB 1317, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Sal Pace, of Pueblo, Wes McKinley, of Walsh, and Sen. Ken Kester, of Las Animas, passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Republican representatives from El Paso County were the most vocal opponents.
Ritter had been urged to veto the bill by citizens and elected officials in El Paso County as well as Republicans U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, of the 6th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, of the 5th Congressional District, and former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, of the 3rd Congressional District.
Lamborn issued a statement criticizing Ritter and the legislators who supported the bill.
“A lot is on the line here, and it’s time Coloradans wake up to how serious a threat this bill is to the future of Fort Carson … this is not just an El Paso County issue,” declared Lamborn.
“All of Colorado benefits from the annual impact of Fort Carson on our economy — an estimated $1.64 billion. A good part of the money ends up in the state treasury from income and sales tax,” he said.
The campaign to save the expansion was waged late in the game — the governor said he plans to sign the bill into law this weekend.
Fountain Creek Watershed District wins bipartisan approval
After spending Monday at three events in Pueblo, Ritter came to Fountain to celebrate the formation of the Fountain Creek Watershed District.
The district was created by Senate Bill 141, which the governor signed into law on April 30. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, and Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Colorado Springs, as well as Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo.
As a district, the watershed maintenance and improvement projects are eligible for various funding mechanisms. The district is a step forward to ending years of wrangling between the two counties over the costs and responsibilities of protecting the creek system that flows through El Paso County to the Arkansas River in Pueblo.
“It’s historic for our communities to join together,” said Tapia, wryly poking fun at the rivalry between Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
The watershed will be “a crown jewel for Southern Colorado,” said Tapia, who envisions a hiking-and-biking trail from the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk of Pueblo to Fountain Creek parks in Colorado Springs in the future.
The governor lauded the legislators, local elected officials and volunteers for their bi-partisan efforts.
“There’s an old saying in the West — whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting,” Ritter told the 75 people at the event.