State of the valley: Government officials talk issues

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Grand Valley governments avoided an expected downturn in sales tax revenues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions.

Governments and residents alike found ways to support businesses. Collaborative and flexible efforts helped address issues as well.

Even as the effects of the pandemic ease, other challenges remain. They include affordable housing, access to mental health services and accommodating growth while maintaining quality of life.

Officials from Mesa County, the cities of Grand Junction, and Fruita and town of Palisade discussed the effects of the pandemic and addressed other issues during a state of the valley luncheon hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

The panel featured Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland, Mesa County Administrator Pete Baier, Grand Junction Mayor Chuck McDaniel, Grand Junction City Manager Greg Caton, Fruita Mayor Joel Kincaid, Fruita City Manager Mike Bennett, Palisade Mayor Greg Mikolai and Palisade Town Manager Janet Hawkinson.

In looking back over the past year and the effects of the pandemic, the officials said they were most surprised by what didn’t happen, and that was a large decline in sales tax revenues.

Mesa County collected nearly $37 million in sales taxes in 2020, a 5.4 percent increase over 2019. Rowland attributed the gain in part to an increase in tax collections on internet sales — up more than 200 percent in 2020 to more than $1.5 million.

Bennett said sales tax collections for Fruita have increased every year since 2017 and hit a record level in 2020.

The City of Grand Junction collected about $48 million in sales taxes in 2020, a 2 percent decline from 2019.

County sales tax collections through the first four months of 2021 rose 17.2 percent over the same span in 2020. The City of Grand Junction reported a 17.1 percent year-over-year increase in sales tax collections through the first four months of 2021.

Some good things came out of the pandemic, the officials said, among them local support for businesses and more collaborative and flexible efforts

Mikolai said he was encouraged by the community spirit he observed. “I’m really proud of the citizens of Palisade in how they reacted.”

Hawkinson said collaborations with the Ute Water District and Mesa County Sheriff’s Department helped ensure if town employees became ill, essential services would continue.

McDaniel said the City of Grand Junction worked with Mesa County Public Health to set up a vaccination site at the downtown convention center.

Caton said the city fared well in what was a kind of stress test. “Our delivery of services didn’t skip a beat.”

Even as the effects of the pandemic ease, other challenges remain, officials said.

Access to affordable housing has become a more pressing issue as the price of homes and rents increase.

McDaniel said he’s concerned Grand Junction could become like Colorado resort communities where the people who work there can’t afford to live there.

The city commissioned a housing needs assessment, which he said constitutes a first step in developing ways to address housing problems.

Mikolai said a variety of policy options likely will be needed.

Kincaid said the City of Fruita has allowed for increased density in housing developments while also promoting the development of trails, parks and other amenities that maintain quality of life.

Bennett said he hopes more flexibility will promote more variety in housing, including apartments.

Baier said the county building department strives to maintain a quick and efficient permitting and inspection process to help speed home construction.

In addition, bonding authority could provide funding to help promote affordable housing projects, he said.

Asked about what keeps them awake at night, the eight officials provided differing responses.

Bennett said he worries about striking a balance between accommodating a tourism industry that supports business and tax revenue in Fruita and maintaining quality of life for residents.

Rowland cited lack of access to mental health services.

Caton said he’s concerned about widening gaps between people with means and those struggling to get by.

After a series of disasters that have included a pandemic, a spring freeze that damaged the Grand Valley peach crop and historic wild fires, Mikolai said he wonders what’s next.

There’s a possibility, officials said, federal funds coming to the Grand Valley in the aftermath of the pandemic could be used to address some of those concerns and others. Moreover, local governments could collaborate further in that process, they said.