Lincoln county commissioners in Denver for conference on coal communities

FILE PHOTO

Lincoln County Commissioners Kent Connelly, Robert King and Jerry Harmon at a commission meeting in 2018. The commissioners are currently in Denver with other local representatives for a three-day workshop titled “Strengthening Economies in the West: Coal Reliant Communities Innovation Challenge.”

When challenges arise, leaders have two choices: ignore them, or face them. The Lincoln County Commissioners have chosen the latter, and are attending the Strengthening Economies in the West: Coal-Reliant Communities Innovation Challenge in Denver this week.

“We’re looking at potentially losing 40 percent of our revenue in three years,” commission chair Kent Connelly said, referring to uncertainty at the Kemmerer coal mine and power plant. “I can’t sit in my chair next to my fellow commissioners and not do anything. We have to react to it right now in order to survive.”

The Lincoln County team includes Commissioners Kent Connelly and Robert King, Kemmerer city administrator Brian Muir, Teresa Frommel (chair of the South Lincoln Economic Development Corporation), county planning director John Woodward and Chamber of Commerce chair Ellen Potter.

The local team will work with groups from Campbell County (Wyo.), Montana, Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico at the event.

The purpose is to help coal-reliant counties “retool their economies to become more resilient to changing conditions” by  creating action plans.

“We’ve survived ups and downs, and other communities have as well,” Connelly said. “We’re a resilient community. We’re here (at the conference) to learn from other communities on how to reinvent ourselves. We can come out on top of this.”

The conference focuses on economic diversification for communities that are subject to a fluctuating coal market.

Connelly outlined what that diversification could mean for Lincoln County.

“Right now Rocky Mountain Power needs to be retraining the workforce so they can stay here in a different industry, and not just walk away and take all our assets with them,” Connelly said.

Connelly said the county should add to the skill set of its workforce and look for industries where skills can transfer. He said this is key to preventing a population loss (and loss of tax revenue) in the county.

“We’ve had discussions about the need for a facility in the state that manufactures and repairs things like wind turbines,” Connelly said. “Right now those turbines are taken out of the state for repairs. But mechanics and other workers with those skill sets could transfer right over from Rocky Mountain Power to a manufacturing facility, and we could keep those jobs here.”

Lincoln County is working with other counties from Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona at a coal-reliant communities conference in Denver this week. (COURTESY PHOTO) 

Lincoln County was accepted to be part of the three-day workshop in March, and the team has been preparing since.

The challenge is sponsored by the National Association of Counties.

“This group represents the key players that can help us make this happen,” Connelly said. “A group has more vision.”

At their April 23 meeting, the commissioners discussed how uncertainty in the county’s energy industry would play into their budget planning.

“Not really knowing what the mine or PacifiCorp are going to do, gosh that makes us worry about the year after next as far as our budget goes,” said commissioner Robert King.

“We’re budgeting in a worst case scenario right now,” Connelly said. “When we budget, we usually estimate revenue for next year, but we’re having to look at the next three. We’re having to adjust right now to what could happen.”

These uncertainties include an increased global focus on environmental regulations and the decisions of several utilities to choose renewable energy sources over coal.

County treasurer Jerry Greenfield told the commissioners of concerns he had heard about the sale of the mine falling through, but said he thinks “everything’s going to be okay” with the county’s finances for a while.

“Fingers crossed, but I really think Westmoreland will pay (the county) the rest of the taxes they owe us,” Greenfield said. “I believe (Westmoreland) will run the mine somehow.” 

In Nov. 2018, Westmoreland did pay Lincoln County nearly $5 million in ad valorem and mineral severance taxes. Greenfield called the payment a “pleasant surprise” and said it provided essential funds for the county’s special districts. Lincoln County currently has legal representation to represent its interests in the Westmoreland bankruptcy case.

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