La Plata and Montezuma counties will receive more than $11 million in federal funding for housing, transportation, law enforcement and other projects as part of a $1.5 trillion federal spending bill signed this week by President Joe Biden.
Some of the largest funding allocations include $3 million toward an affordable housing project in Durango, $2 million to improve homes for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and $2 million to build a school in Towoac that will preserve Ute cultural traditions and educate students in the tribe.
“Things in the millions of dollars, that’s tough to come by,” said Durango Mayor Kim Baxter. “... I know that there’s pros and cons to earmarking, but I do think that one of the benefits to it is it allows people who know the conditions locally to advocate for the things that would really benefit them.”
The funding was secured through a process officially called Congressionally Directed Spending but more commonly known as earmarking, in which lawmakers make local funding requests that circumvent the federal agency that would typically manage and award such funding requests. Congressional representatives were allowed to submit earmark funding requests for the first time in a decade after several corruption scandals in the early 2000s resulted in a 10-year ban.
The $1.5 trillion bill’s passage also avoids an impending government shutdown and will primarily fund the federal government through Sept. 30.
The Durango Hotel Conversion Affordable Housing Project will receive $3 million from the bill, about 10% of the total estimated costs, to help convert the 71-unit Best Western Inn & Suites, located at 21382 U.S. Highway 160, into low-cost housing.
Baxter said the city government originally requested $9.6 million for the hotel project, but said receiving only a third of that amount shouldn’t limit the project’s scope. The remainder of the project will be funded through a combination of loans and bonds, she said.
Durango also received $522,000 to cover the purchase of two electric buses that will travel between the city and Archuleta County.
“We don’t really have a good bus system right now, so this is a great route,” Baxter said. “The majority of people who ride our transit services, it is their way of getting around, so giving them the opportunity to get to Pagosa and Archuleta County ... it runs right by the hospital, gets to the airport, gets to work, gets them all those kinds of things that are really critical.”
For La Plata County, the bill also includes:
- $166,000 to upgrade technology for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and its capacity for emergency response and search and rescue operations.
- $150,000 to address substance-use treatment gaps in geographically isolated areas. Similar funding is being provided in five counties, 10 municipalities and two tribes
- $159,999 for a food bank at Fort Lewis College that will source food from agricultural producers in Southwest Colorado, honor SNAP benefits and provide free groceries to underserved populations.
In Montezuma County, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is set to receive $4,784,000 million that will go toward projects for law enforcement, housing improvements and the construction of a new academy.
Bernadette Cuthair, the longtime director of planning and development for the tribe, said $2 million will go toward the construction of about 18 new homes and help bring some of its existing 600 mobile and stick-built homes up to code.
“The houses that were built in the 1960s and ’70s, they have potential electrical problems, they have potential mold issues or could have asbestos in it because of the materials they used back then,” Cuthair said. She added that the COVID-19 pandemic only increased the urgency to build new homes, as homeless families typically live in houses with other families rather than on the streets.
Another $2 million will support the construction of a permanent school called the Kwiyagat Community Academy, which will blend traditional Western teaching with courses focused on preserving “lost cultural assets” such as the Ute language, Cuthair said.
Ute Mountain Utes living in the tribe’s satellite community of White Mesa will receive $784,000 to expand their law enforcement agency. In Ignacio, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe will use $2.5 million for a methane capture project that will reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses.
“Our hearts are full of gratitude for this funding and to Sen. Hickenlooper and Sen. Bennett,” Cuthair said.
Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper coordinated their requests to successfully secure $11,122,000 for nine projects in La Plata and Montezuma counties, according to their offices.
“There’s never enough money to do all the good work that needs to be done, that’s just the nature of the universe,” Hickenlooper told The Durango Herald on Friday. “I think we made a lot of progress. We really moved the ball down the field a long way.”
Hickenlooper touted his confidence that the new process, which requires lawmakers to post their requests online and limits the amount of funding available for earmarking, resulted in a “pretty clean” system.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, who opposes the concept of earmarks, did not apply for any localized funding to be included in the bill.
“Earmarks are counterproductive tools for entrenched politicians to shut down debate and buy votes,” Boebert told Fox News in February 2021. In an email to the Herald, press secretary Jake Settle said Boebert has secured millions of dollars for her region through other appropriations methods.
Baxter said although she doesn’t support federal funding for everything, earmarked money provides a useful way to address the unique local challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m sure (Boebert) has her own reasons for where she stands, but we’re in a really unique situation right now. ... I don’t quite understand why one would say no to that,” Baxter said. “If you say no, that money is going to go to someone else for the exact same types of projects. It doesn’t go back to the taxpayer.”
Skye Witley, a senior at American University in Washington, D.C., is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.