New county commissioners visit D.C.

Discuss marijuana, money, broadband with peers, feds

WASHINGTON – Two La Plata County commissioners spent this week taking local issues to the national level during a legislative conference in Washington, D.C.

Commissioners Julie Westendorff and Gwen Lachelt participated in the National Association of Counties’ 2013 Legislative Conference, discussing topics such as sequestration, marijuana, wildfires, budgets and broadband with other county commissioners, a Cabinet member and the Colorado congressional delegation.

“I found it a really valuable experience,” Lachelt said during an interview in a Senate office building’s cafeteria Wednesday.

Westendorff said she came to the conference hoping to speak with county officials in Washington state about their new law legalizing recreational marijuana, which is similar to one recently passed in Colorado.

She also spoke with New Mexico officials to see if they had any concerns about marijuana crossing the border from Colorado, she said.

On the federal level, Westendorff said she asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about rules governing industrial hemp and their interplay with marijuana laws. Vilsack told her that he’d already spoken with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder about it, she said.

“I was really pleased to know they’d had that conversation,” Westendorff said.

Lachelt said Colorado commissioners also discussed broadband in the state.

Eagle-Net Alliance’s federally funded project to build high-speed communication lines to schools and government buildings across Colorado has been suspended since early December because of environmental concerns, and the company was the subject of federal and state hearings last week.

Eagle-Net is supposed to build a fiber-optic line to Silverton, where there is no high-speed Internet, but has not done so yet.

Westendorff said a lack of broadband in places such as Silverton can hurt the region’s economy. Businesses need a high-speed connection to function in rural areas, she said.

“It’s not about watching Netflix really fast,” she said. “It’s not just about playing games and watching movies.”

Lachelt and Westendorff said they are concerned about the effect of the sequester cuts on La Plata County, particularly on the federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes Program. The PILT program gives federal money to local governments to help make up for the lost property taxes that cannot be collected for federal lands.

In terms of other cuts, the county cannot raise taxes without voter approval under Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights – legislation that removes the “ability to respond to reality in a timely fashion,” Westendorff said.

Because county governments must have balanced budgets – unlike the federal government – local officials are left to make on-the-ground choices of where to tighten.

“They’re leaving it up to the counties to make the hard decisions,” Lachelt said.

Stefanie Dazio is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. You can reach her at

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