Western Wire

Following the Weld County Board of County Commissioners’ unanimous, 5-0 decision to oppose the 2,500-foot setback for new oil and gas production in this November’s Proposition 112 ballot measure, Western Wire sat down for an in-depth interview with Weld Country Commissioner At Large, Sean Conway, to better understand the possible impacts that the measure would have from the local level to statewide.

Weld County Chair Steve Moreno, Conway, Commissioner Pro-Tem Barbara Kirkmeyer, Commissioner Julie Cozad, and Commissioner Mike Freeman voted to oppose Proposition 112 on September 17.

The commissioners’ vote inspired Weld County mayors to form their own organization—Mayors Against Proposition 112 or MAP112—and now have more than 40 mayors on board, including the mayors of all ten of the state’s largest municipalities.

In the interview, Conway offers his analysis and views on everything from Weld County property valuations that will likely plummet if the measure passes, to the overall effect on county services like law enforcement and education. He also provides insight into how the oil and gas industry showed up in the aftermath of the September 2013 floods that literally split his county in half due to washed out roads and other infrastructure. Conway reaffirms his opinion that Proposition 112 is a “dumb idea” but adds that he feels confident that Colorado voters will reject the “snake oil” cynicism of the measure.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Q: When you talk about reducing budgets, reduction of budgets goes to lots of different services and law enforcement is a part of that, infrastructure, any public administration, so there are key cuts that would have to be made to just Weld County government, not mentioning the public jobs that are lost, the jobs that are lost in the industry. What kind of effect is that going to have on Weld County responsiveness, Weld County infrastructure, to possibly have to cut jobs or not fill vacancies, should Proposition 112 pass?

Conway: “Well, to put it simply, Proposition 112 would be devastating to Weld County. But not only would it be devastating to Weld County, it would be devastating to the State of Colorado. And here’s how: so you just talked about, I put it on a county level, in terms of county government. We haven’t – let me just tell you, we’ve got a deal with the jail, about making sure that’s staffed, making sure the sheriff has people out there, but let me tell you where this really hits home. This hits home in school districts and fire districts. And if you care about education here’s what happens under the school finance act and this is what will happen, not just in Weld County but across the state of Colorado as job loss occurs, and as tighter budgets happen, so the school finance act says, if your local mill levy goes down, in terms of its revenue, the state legislature backfills it, in terms of the school finance act. If the state legislature is going to have less money coming through the door, how are they going to backfill those school districts like those in Weld County, District 6 for example, in Greeley, or a rural school district, Highlands, or RE-1, in Gilcrest, how is the legislature with fewer resources under the school finance act, going to backfill this declining revenue? I think this is devastating for teachers, for students, and for the parents of those students, in terms of vital public services like a fire district. We have a fire district, Kersey, that is 89 percent dependent on oil and gas. How is the small community of Kersey and that fire district, potentially faced with losing a large percentage of their 89 percent funding, going to ensure that they are going to be there when a traffic accident happens on Highway 34? Or a housefire occurs, in terms of their responsiveness? It’s going to be mutually challenging for all fire districts that are dependent on this revenue. People outside of Garfield County, Weld County, the major oil and gas producing counties, think ‘oh, that’s not my problem.’ This is going to have a serious impact in terms of the state budget. And that money is going to have to come from somewhere to backfill under the school finance act. Those school districts will have significant decreases in revenue.

In my mind, Proposition 112—if you were concerned about education, if you are concerned about public safety, you should be scared to death that 112 passes. Because all of us rely on those vital services, that EMT, that fire truck, that police officer when you have an incident, you have a traffic accident, or you have a heart attack. And I think that you can make the case that 112 is going to cost lives in the state of Colorado. The devastating cuts that are going to occur in fire districts, in municipalities, in counties for the sheriffs’ department and their police, you only have one alternative, and that is to raise taxes or cut services. And if you put 140,000 people out of work like the economic study says, and then you add in the toll that takes when people lose jobs, when families are under stress, those human services programs are vital, they are vital, they are a lifeline. And at a time when more and more people are going to need those services through no fault of their own, county and state governments are going to be taxed to fully fund those needs. So I said in the hearing, I can’t think of a dumber idea. If you sat down to design a proposition that would wreak this much harm, you couldn’t do it. You literally couldn’t put pen to paper to come up with a dumber idea that is going to eliminate jobs, is going to create challenges for education, vital public services, fire departments, sheriffs’ departments, and I don’t think we’ve fully figured out the total impact of Proposition 112.

Don’t fall for something that we all know – I haven’t heard one economic analysis, I haven’t heard any arguments from the proponents of 112, how this is not going to harm our community. How it won’t have a devastating effect on working families and our ability to continue to thrive, work, live, and play. A lot of work. I mean, like I said, it’s been 8 years since the great recession. Memories fade over time. We’ve enjoyed an enormous amount of economic prosperity in the State of Colorado because of the energy sector. And we are now going to throw all of that away? We are now going to put at risk our citizens in terms of the jobs, their safety, their kid’s education? For what? An arbitrary and capricious number that somebody came up in a back room with? I mean, that’s also the most frustrating thing. There is no correlation between this setback in terms of health and the environment.”

Q: Do you see this as an anti-Weld County measure? Do you take it personally?

Conway: “Well, first of all, I take it damn personally, because I view this as an anti-person agenda. It probably is somewhat an anti-Weld County driven agenda. These aren’t just words anymore—these are people going to the city council meeting or board of county commissioner meetings and throwing descriptive adjectives at us and yelling and screaming and all the things that go on. Measures like this really go at the heart of my county’s residents, my neighbors, my friends, and it really upsets me. I have watched how they operated.

And let me tell you a story about 2013, and the flood. Well, when I awoke—that’s a nebulous term because I was up for about three days straight—when the full scope and the full devastation of this once-in-500-year-flood occurred in 2013, we had a lot of needs after that. And I will never forget over that long weekend, it started raining on a Thursday night and the water kind of started – the flooding started on Friday and it continued to rain and it got worse over Saturday and Sunday. So we are sitting in the emergency operations center. We have sanitation knocked off-line down in the flood channel. We have hundreds and hundreds of people in shelters. Shelter had to be moved once because it was at risk, that happened to Greeley, Milliken was an island unto itself, we couldn’t get in and couldn’t get out, Evans—their water system was knocked offline, they had whole neighborhoods knocked out in east Evans. My phone rang with people saying what can we do to help? And I remember saying we need water because our systems are out. We have people in shelters, and they only have the clothes on their back, and the oil and gas industry said, ‘why don’t we do this, let’s bring over some gift cards, let’s let them go shop, maybe get a toy for their child, get a clean pair of shoes, get some snacks,’ and I think the total was like $65,000 in gift cards that were raised in a matter of hours by the oil and gas industry and delivered to the shelters. And then, when we found ourselves with 163 roads, bridges and culverts washed out, the industry called me and said, ‘hey we’ve got some workers, where can we help your public works people?’ Because we had been overwhelmed. We had – and we were able to get 160 of those, 161, I think it was, of those roads, and some of them were just wiped out. We got them back online within 30 days with the help of our industry partners.

And then, and what did the other side do? It’s really deeply personal to me. Because at a time when Weld County residents were struggling, they had lost their homes, they had lost almost everything except for the clothes on their backs, the industry stepped up and said, ‘here, what can we do to help?’ What did the other side do? They rented a helicopter and plane out of Jefferson County airport or whatever, to go take pictures and tell a lie. Remember the pictures of condensation tanks?”

Q: Yes, that the Post had to correct.

Conway: “That was a lie. And the Denver Post took those pictures and printed them on the front page of the paper, and took the narrative that had been given to them that was totally false, and they had to retract it. When the oil and gas industry employees showed up to help struggling families clean out their basements, take out drywall, what was the other side doing? In my mind, people come first.”

Q: Some people have been dismissive of this resolution, saying that, ‘of course Weld County would oppose this setback measure.’ Agriculture is an important part of the economy for counties on the eastern plains, just as snowpack and water are important to Colorado’s mountain counties. What do you say to that? It’s an important part of your community, correct?

Conway: “Well, it’s disappointing. I would never be dismissive, and I have worked closely with CCI with commissioners who philosophically are of a different bent, but have always been respectful of the fact, and you just said it, the ski industry, those mountain communities who rely heavily on tourism in the ski industry. I’ve always tried – and you know, the closest thing that I have to a ski hill in Weld county is Pawnee Buttes, but I would never be dismissive in that fashion, and I think it goes to the heart that this is personal. I do take it personally when people outside of the State of Colorado and parts of Colorado, personally attack my county and my residents, and I view this as a personal attack on Weld County. And what have we done that is so wrong? We provide an enormous resource. I mean, those folks who would be dismissive of Weld County, what are they going to do when it’s cold out and they turn on the thermostat for their natural gas and it’s not there? What if they go to the gas station in downtown Denver and there’s no gasoline? There was this dismissiveness over the people who provide people their food and their energy from rural Colorado being dismissed, whole-handedly, by urban residents a few years back. And we had a whole debate over whether we had to create a whole new state because we had been politically disenfranchised. That is the same attitude as somebody who writes that dismissive email. I would never be dismissive to another part of the state whose economy is at risk. And I’ll give you a classic example. Let’s say we have a drought and those ski counties need assistance because they didn’t get any snow. And because they didn’t get any snow they didn’t get any tourists. Shouldn’t we step up to the plate and be concerned about that? Or should I say to the county commissioner, ‘well, county commissioner, I don’t have any ski areas, I don’t have any tourism related to skiing,’ and be dismissive about it? No, that’s wrong!”

Western Wire

You know, there’s a total ignorance, a total lack of knowledge, in terms of where we get our food and where we get our energy. And as we become a more urbanized society they don’t understand that natural gas is fertilizer, they don’t get the role that it plays in the whole process of production, and I’m not talking about oil and gas production but industrial production. Consumer production, of transportation, they don’t get the entire process. All they see is the end product.

Should we be environmentally friendly? Yes! Should we be conscious of conservation efforts in terms of things? Yes! But, you know, my grandfather used to say, you never missed it until it’s gone. And if we keep going down this path, the wonderful modern amenities that my grandfather couldn’t enjoy, we live in such an accommodating environment in the sense that everything we want is at our fingertips, we don’t really have to hunt for our food, we don’t have to go cut the wood for the fireplace to stay warm, just two-three generations ago, what people had to do to just live. And we have created urban areas that are almost cocoons for people that shelter them from where their food comes from, from where their energy comes from, and if they don’t begin to open their eyes and appreciate the hardworking men and women who every single day get up and go produce our food, go produce our energy, these are the best of the best. These people, these hardworking men and women I get to meet on a daily basis, not just in Weld County but throughout the state of Colorado, God bless them. They are the salt of the earth, they are wonderful, patriotic, they are pursuing the American dream, and somebody from out of state who has a political agenda comes in and tries to basically ruin their future. And it makes me mad. And I try not to go there but my job is to go fight for those people, every single day,

Prop 112 is the worst of the worst. It is an assault on Colorado’s working families. It will have a devastating effect on my county. And if you want to be dismissive, go ahead and be dismissive, and when you drive into a gas station and pay $5 for a gallon of gas because we are importing, and the other thing – I didn’t even touch on the national security side of this.

This is also a national security issue and I have skin in the game. The idea that our country can become energy independent and stop sending money to countries that hate us and want to kill us, this is also – I think – an attempt to imperil our national security by passing these measures not just in Colorado but in other places, New York, Pennsylvania, where they’ve gone after oil and gas.”

Q: Can you tell me about some of the potential Weld County economic impacts from Proposition 112, including valuation?

Conway: “We have a higher valuation than Jefferson County, Douglas, Larimer, Boulder, and Arapahoe county. Now I don’t know what their final assessed values are but our assessed value is $11.67 billion dollars. Now to put that in perspective, of that $11.7 billion dollars, in terms of assessed value, $6.8 billion is derived from oil and gas. Now that does not – let’s just be [clear]– the property taxes – the assess value of oil and gas companies, like Anadarko, Noble, PDC, Encana or now Crestone, pay. That does not include the commercial side of it in terms of the support industry. So, and to put that in perspective because, you know, people get wrapped around on numbers, the entire assessed value of Weld County in 2010 was $5.5 billion. So if you took all of the assessed value in 2010 in Weld County, you would come to $5.5. billion. Today it’s $11.7 billion. In 8 years its gone up by what, more than 110 percent and most of that is derived from oil and gas—you do the math—if you take $5.5 billion and you add $6.8 billion you almost come up to that $11.7 billion dollar number.”

Q: And just for clarification that does not include the mineral values below, subsurface right?

Conway: “Correct. That’s just the assessed value, basically of production. The only thing we can assess valuation on is the production. So from a Weld County perspective this could be devastating. The initial analysis by our financial administration director, over the next four to five years, our assessed value because of declining production, and the limited availability in terms of setbacks where wells can be drilled will almost decrease our assessed value in half. So we’re looking at going back to around – and again this is a preliminary assessment that our finance administration director did – but we’ll lose about half of our current assessed value, that puts it down in the $6 billion dollar range. And that might not include, having lived through the pre oil and gas great recession of 2009 and 2010, that we’ve been the great beneficiary like the rest of Colorado, of higher assessed values on homes, on businesses, if we go back to the days of pre-oil and gas in terms of today, we will be looking – right now our unemployment rate is about 2.5 percent. It was 11.5 percent in 2010. We had the second highest unemployment rate in the state. Pueblo, Mesa County and Weld County were all 1-2-3. All within that 11 to 11.5 percent range. And so you know, I’m old enough to remember 10 years ago, when I first got elected to the Board of County Commissioners, my first administration director handed me a budget book and he said, ‘your first assignment, Commissioner Conway, is to cut out of our budget $20 million, over 10 percent of what our budget was at that time, in real dollars.’ It was a very challenging time. We managed to get through it with the help of our department heads, we spent 6 months in strategic budget meetings, our goal was to use vacancy savings so we didn’t have to layoff people, I remember those days. The commissioners challenged our 1,500 employees at the time, saying, we need your assistance, and they stepped up to the plate. We didn’t give COLAs [cost of living adjustments], you know, cost of living increases, we didn’t give step increases, we used vacancy savings in terms of staffing, we reduced our budget between 15 and 17 percent and we got through it.”

Q: How do you think the voters of Colorado will react to this measure on election day?

Conway: “Well, my belief is that people are going to get this. They are going to get – they are going to understand the snake oil that is being sold to them. My sense is in terms of viewing this, the other side may have awakened a sleeping giant. Because a lot of the folks who were content to be raising a family, going to work every day, leaving the public policy side to others, are realizing that their future is at stake and they are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it anymore. I really do believe that as that evolves it could be transformative politically in Colorado. I think the other side sorely underestimates how angry, how upset people are over what they believe is an attack on them personally, for simply doing their job. For simply providing a very valuable service to the state and to the nation, and they’re tired of it. They’re tired of being demeaned, they are tired of being treated like second class citizens, and like I said, this year we will see potentially the new beginnings of a political movement in the state of Colorado where these type of dumb ideas are banished back to the dark ages and people can pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and live their dreams out and provide for their families.”Con