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Colorado lawmakers behind paid family leave bill vow to return despite pushback

DENVER (AP) — Sponsors of a sweeping Colorado paid family leave bill said Thursday they aren’t giving up despite successful pushback from large business groups that derailed their proposal this year.

Democratic Sens. Angela Williams and Faith Winter vowed to return with a universal plan that would be operational in 2024. Meanwhile, they’re seeking a study on the plan’s viability to present to lawmakers in 2020.

Winter said supporters won’t compromise on their goal of a paid leave option for all Colorado workers.

“Ultimately we want universal coverage, and that is not something we will compromise on,” Winter told reporters. “Whether you are a fast food worker or work at a law firm, you should have access to paid leave.” She said nearly 90 percent of Colorado workers lack paid leave to tend to loved ones, newborns and expanded family emergencies — and that situation disproportionately affects women and minorities in the workplace.

“What the business community has to realize is that the traditional nuclear family has changed” since the federal Family and Medical Leave Act was adopted in 1993, Williams said.

Large business chambers and minority Republican lawmakers questioned the cost to employers and the fiscal soundness of the proposed $1 billion program.

“Our opposition (to the bill) has never been based on the concept of paid family leave,” the Colorado Chamber of Commerce said in a statement. “It’s been about striking a balance between employees and employers, ensuring any program is financially sound, and allowing for flexibility rather than a one-size-fits-all program.”

The proposal would have provided up to 12 weeks of leave, with up to $1,000 a week in benefits, without workers having to worry about their jobs. Premium payments would begin in 2023, with the first benefits available in 2024.

Winter and Williams offered a series of amendments intended to meet the concerns of most of the state’s major business chambers, including allowing private employers to opt out of the program under certain conditions and reducing employer contributions to a plan.

Williams, a former small business owner, said many small businesses support the bill because it would increase worker productivity and retention.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act generally allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and retain their health coverage at firms with more than 50 workers.

Several states, including California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, run their own leave programs largely funded by payroll deductions, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Washington state and Washington, D.C., plan to launch programs in 2020.

Colorado River basin reservoirs benefit from heavy snowpack

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Reservoirs around the Colorado River basin are in good shape after an exceptionally wet winter.

The largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are expected to be more than half full this year. They haven’t been near capacity since 1999 when drought took hold of the region.

The worst levels of drought have now disappeared from much of the basin that takes in seven Western states. It’s a dramatic turn from this time last year when parts of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California were extremely or exceptionally dry.

Nevada and Wyoming also rely on water from the Colorado River.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Shana Tighi said Wednesday that one good year won’t erase drought concerns. But she says it buys time for long-term planning.

Evidence delays slow progress in Rifle vehicular homicide case

Delays in obtaining evidence from police investigators in the vehicular homicide and drunken-driving case against Cody Christopher related to a Dec. 29, 2017, wreck north of Rifle that resulted in two men being killed have led to another continuance.

Defense attorney Lawson Wills expressed frustration at an arraignment hearing in Garfield County District Court Thursday, saying he will ask the court to take action if there’s still no progress when Christopher is back in court on May 10.

That could include asking the court to suppress certain evidence, or possibly even ask for the case to be dismissed if evidence, including a report on Christopher’s blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash, is still lacking, Wills said.

Christopher, 40, of Rifle, faces several felony charges stemming from the late-night accident on the private Puma Paw Ranch Road north of Rifle that claimed the lives of Matthew Smith, 36, of Rifle, and Trent Johnson, 41, of Glenwood Springs. Johnson’s 10-year-old son, Rylan, was also seriously injured in the wreck.

Christopher remains free on $50,000 bond.

He is accused of being drunk at the time the 2003 Ford sport utility vehicle he was driving shortly after midnight on Dec. 29 went over an embankment and rolled. Christopher was also taken to Grand River Hospital in Rifle after the crash and treated for minor injuries.

Johnson and Smith were both ejected from the vehicle, and were pronounced dead at the scene. None of the four people in the vehicle were wearing a seatbelt at the time.

The group was reportedly headed out on a hunting trip when the crash occurred on the private ranch road, which is an extension of Garfield County Road 219 northwest of Rifle Gap Reservoir near the Rifle Correctional Facility.

Investigators said there was evidence of alcohol involved at the crash scene, including several opened and unopened beer cans, and that Christopher allegedly admitted afterward to consuming beer prior to the crash. The vehicle ended up in a creek, and, according to an affidavit in the case, it wasn’t until about 3 a.m. that Smith was found beneath the vehicle.

Colorado State Patrol officials said Christopher’s breath had a strong odor of alcohol, and he had slurred speech and bloodshot, watery eyes.

Christopher reportedly admitted to drinking two beers prior to the crash, but he refused to allow a voluntary blood draw at Grand River Hospital. He later submitted to blood draws after a search warrant was issued by a judge later that same day.

The affidavit also notes that Smith’s wife said Christopher carried the boy into her kitchen after the accident, trying to find help, and that he smelled of alcohol. State Patrol officials also said they interviewed a man who indicated that he had been drinking with the men at a cabin earlier the night of the accident, but that he didn’t know how much they had.

Colorado close to expanding traction law targeting 2WD cars driving I-70 in the mountains

Drivers who venture onto Interstate 70 in the mountains in two-wheel-drive cars with standard tires during colder months — even on sunny days — are expected to be put on notice soon: That won’t fly anymore.

Such vehicles will need specialized tires or will have to carry traction devices, no matter the weather, between Sept. 1 and May 31 under a bipartisan bill that is heading to Gov. Jared Polis. The legislation, once signed, will beef up the state’s traction law, which currently kicks in before and during winter storms — sometimes catching travelers off guard.

Four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive vehicles already pass muster under the current law if they have sufficient tread, but the bill would set a higher standard. It would increase the minimum tread depth from an eighth of an inch to three-sixteenths of an inch. Little would change for semi-trailers, whose drivers already are required to carry chains at all times during colder months.

But amid talk of the stricter law and the potential for more proactive enforcement by the Colorado State Patrol, the bulk of the concern has focused on two-wheel-drive vehicles.

Read the full story from The Denver Post.

State Patrol: High speed likely a factor in fatal motorcycle crash in Glenwood Canyon

Speed was likely a factor in a fatal motorcycle crash on Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon last Friday that closed the westbound lanes of traffic for several hours, according to the Colorado State Patrol.

The driver of the motorcycle, 61-year-old Daniel Schaub from Avon, was ejected and pronounced dead at the scene. State Patrol officials are still determining the exact cause of the wreck.

Patrol Trooper Josh Lewis said officials are considering speed to be a factor in the crash. He explained that Schaub likely lost control while going through the curve at around milemarker 123.1 near the Hanging Lake Tunnel.

Lewis said the suggested speed going through the curve is 45 mph (posted speed limit is 50 mph), but the State Patrol estimated Schaub was going through the curve at around 65 mph.

azorn@citizentelegram.com

Yunlong Chen still missing as ski season ends in Vail

Yunlong Chen is still missing, and the chances of him being found by a skier on Vail Mountain just got a lot slimmer.

Vail closed for the season on Sunday, nearly eight weeks after Chen’s last known activity on Feb. 28.

Chen was spotted at the Vail Transportation Center between 8:15 and 9 a.m. on Feb. 28; a little while later his ski pass was scanned at Gondola One. That was the last known activity related to Chen, Amber Barrett with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department confirmed.

“The last place it appears for him to have been was skiing on Vail Mountain,” Barrett wrote in an email to the Vail Daily on Thursday, April 18. “Ski patrol and ski school instructors are conducting daily searches. There have also been more than 250,000 people who have skied in Vail since Mr. Chen went missing.”

Also, added Barrett, “We have communicated with local pilots, asking for them to keep an eye out when they fly over any of this area (along with everything else that was included).”

Barrett did not share any lifts that Chen may have scanned besides Gondola One, but in March Detective Aaron Veldheer confirmed that Chen’s pass was scanned in more places than just Gondola One.

“He scanned a few (lifts) at Vail,” Veldheer said.

Alone on a ski vacation

While the last known activity related to Chen occurred in Vail on Feb. 28, it took until March 10 for reports of his disappearance to reach Vail.

The snow stake at Vail recorded 57 inches of snowfall from Feb. 28 to March 10.

Chen, 55, is from China and was traveling alone on a ski vacation. He was scheduled to fly to British Columbia for a few days after Vail, before returning to China. Police said he didn’t make it to British Columbia.

Chen’s family in China reported him missing when he did not arrive back home.

“That may have caused some of the delay in reporting,” Veldheer said.

Also, “he was known to maybe be a little bit loose on his schedule,” Veldheer added.

Surveillance photos taken of Chen on the morning of Feb. 28 show him wearing bright orange ski pants and a bright blue jacket.

If anyone has any information about Chen or his whereabouts, contact the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office at (970) 328-8500 or the Vail Public Safety Communications Center to speak with the Investigations team at (970) 479-2201.

Garfield commissioners give quarry operators deadline to straighten up

The Garfield Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously Monday night to give Rocky Mountain Resources until June 1 to come into compliance with its county special-use permit, or face further legal action.

After a nearly three-hour public hearing, the clock was set for the controversial quarry operation — currently proposed for a major expansion — to meet its existing obligations.

Nearly 200 people attended the meeting, held at Glenwood Springs Middle School to accommodate the crowd. County planning staff members presented their findings that RMR was in violation of five out of seven alleged violations.

The allegations were made in November after a complaint from the Glenwood Springs Citizens’ Alliance, a group best known for their opposition to RMR’s proposal with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to expand operations.

Commissioners agreed with staff that RMR stands in violation of the county’s special-use permit in five areas out of the seven allegations. Those include:

• RMR confirmed it was selling limestone for road base, boulders and other construction materials, when their permit specifically authorizes extraction of only chemical-grade limestone dust.

• The quarry operated between Dec. 15 and April 15 the past two years, despite the special-use permit prohibition on extraction during those months.

• RMR is operating on 20.8 acres of BLM land, when the county permit authorizes only 16.3 acres.

• RMR failed to keep noise on Transfer Trail low, and did not implement communication with Glenwood Caverns traffic as stipulated in the permit’s maintenance agreement.

• RMR conducted exploratory drilling, with a BLM permit, which was not part of the county’s special-use permit.

“It’s a slower process than we’d like, but we’ll get there,” Jeff Peterson, an active member of Citizens’ Alliance, said after the commissioner’s decision.

DUAL PROCEDURES

The public hearing came just days after the BLM returned RMR’s application to expand quarry operations from about 21 acres to 320 acres, operate seven days a week year-round with the aim of removing 5 million tons of rock each year.

Garfield County authorized the special use permit for the Mid-Continent Quarry in 2009, when it was owned by CalX Minerals. RMR purchased the quarry, and inherited all the accompanying permits, in 2016.

Commission Chairman John Martin made sure to clarify the hearing was only on the current permit, and sometimes reminded speakers not to address a future expansion proposal.

When Martin said Kevin Hillmer was “straying a bit” in commenting that RMR’s expenditures exceeded revenue, Hillmer summed up: “They should not be trusted.”

Every person who delivered public comment spoke in opposition to RMR, and urged the commissioners to take action against the quarry operator. The speakers included former Glenwood Springs Mayor Michael Gamba, current Mayor Jonathan Godes and Mayor Pro-tem Shelley Kaup.

“We’re a nation of rules and laws. We’re a community of rules and laws. When those rules and laws are violated, that breaks the social compact,” Godes said.

Glenwood Springs City Attorney Karl Hanlon did bring up the BLM to point out that he believes RMR is trying to use the modification application, which is still in draft form, to address noncompliance with federal permits.

Many speakers urged the commissioners to immediately shut down the quarry or revoke the special-use permit, arguing that RMR has already had more than two years to comply and apparently does not respect local rules.

The county does not have the authority to force RMR to stop operations overnight. Commissioner Mike Samson said that is not the right way to go.

“There are people employed there that need a job, and are depending on that paycheck. If you work for this company right now, would you want to be told tomorrow that you don’t have a job?” Samson said.

But he also scolded RMR for not being more forthcoming about a number of issues.

“I feel that RMR has not honored the conditions” of the special-use permit, Samson said, adding that some of the conditions may be a little vague.

“I don’t think you’ve been as forthcoming as you should have been in time and in fact,” he said.

quarry rep responds

Representatives of RMR said they had been transparent with regulatory bodies, including the county, the BLM and the Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

RMR’s attorney, Mike Stratton of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck, said the company had been transparent and forthcoming as possible, and was more than willing to work with city and county staff.

“Every one of these issues that we’re dealing with tonight are issues that we have brought to people’s attention,” Stratton told the commissioners. “We will continue to respond to county officials, city officials and state officials, but there is no lack of transparency, gentlemen, and no effort on our part to be hiding the ball on any regard.”

The county’s written order of noncompliance “doesn’t change our plan,” RMR President Greg Dangler said after the hearing.

“We’re going to continue to work with the county and maintain their standards,” he said.

tphippen@postindependent.com

Colorado lawmakers look to fund affordable housing in waning days of session

With just two weeks left in the legislative session, Colorado lawmakers are scrambling to pass a pair of bills that could help ease the affordable housing crunch in Eagle County.

House Bill 1322, sponsored by state Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, would require the state treasurer to transfer a portion of the unclaimed property trust fund to the Colorado Division of Housing for a housing development grant fund.

“My bill will dedicate up to $40 million a year into a statewide housing fund in a fiscally responsible way — it does not raise any taxes or fees — that will be used as a grant program for local public-private partnerships that are working to develop housing units, provide rental assistance in rural areas, and other innovative partnerships,” Roberts said.

The bill passed out of House Finance Committee on a 9-2 vote last week, with two Republicans — Rep. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells, and Rep. Janice Rich, R-Grand Junction — joining all seven Democrats in voting to send it to the House Appropriations Committee this week.

“This bill, along with other housing bills, could result in an historic change in the way the state supports affordable housing development and access in Colorado, especially in the mountain communities that I represent,” said Roberts, who represents Eagle and Routt counties.

How the bill would work

The unclaimed property trust fund consists of dormant bank accounts, securities and life insurance proceeds and other unclaimed funds the treasurer attempts to return to Colorado residents every year with varying degrees of success. In the past, it has been used for dental benefits and adult Medicaid recipients, according to the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.

HB 1322 would support home ownership and rental assistance for people making up to 120 percent of area median income (AMI), which is critical in high cost-of-living areas like Eagle County. State housing support currently ends at 80 percent AMI.

A housing crisis in Colorado

The Vail Valley Partnership, whose board of governors has identified affordable housing as its No. 1 priority, cites Eagle County’s overall 176.3 cost of living index against the nationwide average of 100 and its off-the-scale 340 housing cost index.

“Currently and anecdotally, units that have been long-term workforce rentals are being removed from that market as they are converted into short-term rentals,” the valley-wide chamber states. “This has the potential to grow both catch-up and keep-up needs for workforce housing. We want to ensure our community can remain competitive to keep locals local and to support our business community.”

In resort areas, the high cost of land and construction dictates the need for public sector participation in workforce and attainable housing projects. Ski towns across the country are exploring all sorts of creative public-private partnership models, and recent polling shows 60 percent of Coloradans say there’s a housing crisis in their community.

Another bill, HB 1245, would increase affordable housing funding by capping the amount of sales taxes large retailers retain as a fee for collecting the tax. The bill, which is on the House floor this week, could result in an additional $50 million a year for the affordable housing fund.

“Both HB 1322 and HB 1245 address the affordable housing problem in targeted and creative ways with no implications to taxpayers or other budget priorities,” the CCLP states. “Together, these bills could help thousands of Coloradans better afford a home and let them devote more of their hard-earned money to other essential needs.”

Although not a sponsor, Roberts also supports HB 1245, citing its creative method of funding housing while not dipping into existing general fund sources. Other housing bills introduced this session sought to increase fees or provide tax credits for housing, and Democrats are rejecting those after finalizing a hard-fought $30.5 billion budget.

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, has been trying to incentivize employee housing in rural areas since joining the legislature in 2013. He floated a state tax credit pilot program, HB19-1075 (pdf), that for the first time made it out of the House Finance Committee. It would have allowed for a 20 percent state tax credit on donations to nonprofit housing authorities developing workforce housing in rural areas, but it appears the bill will once again be stalled before going to the House floor.

“In the rural areas in particular, if you’re  a business person and you want to expand that business, there’s no housing there, so if we can give some incentives to rural areas and employers to have some kind of a tax credit, albeit very small, let’s at least see if it’s going to work,” Wilson said earlier this year.

Colorado to buy new buses with money from Volkswagen settlement

DENVER (AP) — Colorado will use part of an emissions scandal settlement to replace 28 diesel buses with electric or cleaner-burning vehicles.

The Denver Post reports the state will provide around $14 million in grants to six transit agencies from the $68.7 million the state received from Volkswagen of America Inc.

The company admitted in 2017 to installing software in diesel cars that activated pollution controls during testing and then deactivated them during normal driving.

The Colorado Department of Transportation says the funds will be used to purchase battery-powered buses with charging equipment and four buses powered by low-emission compressed natural gas or propane.

Grants between $8.5 million and $183,700 have been awarded to the Denver metro area, Colorado Springs, Eagle County, Fort Collins, Boulder, and Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority.

First bear of season killed by Colorado wildlife officers after relocation attempt

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A bear relocated from Steamboat Springs last week was killed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers Monday after it disturbed a farmer’s beehive near Meeker.

This marks the first bear the agency has destroyed in the state this year. Kris Middledorf, the Steamboat area’s wildlife manager, assisted in the bear’s relocation and was disheartened to learn of its death.

“It’s the worst day for wildlife officers who go into this business to conserve wildlife, and then they have to go put an animal down,” he said.

He posted an update on the incident on Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Facebook page Thursday morning, urging local residents to be vigilant about securing their trash and other wildlife attractants, as well.

“Please realize that the fate of this bear and others is dependent on our actions as a community to minimize and eliminate human-supplied food sources,” he wrote in the post.

The 2-year-old male black bear had been relocated to an area outside Milner last Monday after getting into several residential dumpsters in Steamboat and dragging trash bags across the street. Officers tranquilized the bear after it approached a day care center. They claimed the animal posed a threat to children in the area.

They transported the creature to a rural area outside Meeker, hoping it would find enough food there to keep it away from people.

“We wanted to give this bear another opportunity,” Middledorf said.

When Parks and Wildlife officers handle a nuisance bear for the first time, they mark it with a tag. A two-strike system necessitates that officers kill the bear if it causes another problem.

This bear’s second strike occurred when it came across an apiary and destroyed a bee farmer’s hive to get to the honey inside. As Middledorf explained, Parks and Wildlife is liable for agricultural damage caused by big game wildlife and has to prioritize the interests of the farmer over the animal.

As a mitigation measure, the agency sometimes provides electric fencing to apiaries, which tend to attract more bears than other types of farms. Unfortunately for those honey-loving animals, privately owned beehives have become more common in the region.

“Over the last 10 years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of apiaries in the area,” Middledorf said.

As a result, the agency can only afford to provide fencing to apiaries where bears are most active.

Every year, Parks and Wildlife officers have to put down bears deemed a threat or nuisance to the public. The number varies from year to year and depends on the weather and availability of natural food sources, according to Mike Porras, the agency’s public information officer for the northwest region.

“In many case, bears have found they can find plenty of food in residential areas,” he said.

Last year, officers relocated 18 bears in the region, which includes Routt County, but had to kill eight after rehabilitation efforts failed. Of those eight bears, five were killed in the Steamboat area, according to Porras.

Many people, including some local residents, argue Parks and Wildlife officers should be more lenient with bears and allow them to go free as long as they do not hurt anyone. The problem, Porras explained, is officers put down these animals as a preventative measure before they can harm anyone.

“Ultimately, this is all about human health and safety,” he said.

That is why Middledorf encourages residents to take more responsibility to keep wildlife away from town. The city has certain rules about securing trash, bird feeders and other attractants, as well as fines for people who violate those rules.

“It is ultimately the responsibility of our community to co-exist with these animals,” he said.