SUBLETTE COUNTY – With an administrative bell poised to ring a death knell for the Jonah Interagency Office’s mitigation, a financial policy shift will actually keep it functioning for another year.
On Dec. 10, 2020, the Pinedale Anticline Project Office and JIO boards met and agreed to delete both budgets’ 20-percent contingency funds, earmarked for project overruns. That change returned $398,179.93 to the PAPO budget and $366,772.85 to the JIO budget this year.
“Those moneys have been put back in the pot,” said budget officer Sheila Keating.
PAPO mitigation is funded by spud fees paid to the multiagency office with a limited staff directing Anticline projects as required by the 2008 Record of Decision. Total income with investments is $27.5 million with board-approved commitments of $24.4 million. Most refer to wildlife monitoring and habitat improvements.
The JIO mitigation fund was created with Jonah Infill operators paying millions into the Jonah budget, which has no new funds. The board fully planned to phase it out on April 22 with “closeout strategy” on the agenda.
Both boards have the same members, with an implementation team of county and state employees who review and recommend project applications.
PAPO and JIO projects have different requirements but sometimes overlap; each pay salaries for certain positions. Over the years, some vacancies were not filled.
“It takes about $500,000 to cover everybody,” Keating said of the two offices for one year.
PAPO pays for one air-quality inspector, JIO the other. Each had one Wyoming Game and Fish biologist; now JIO funds one. The Sublette County Conservation District fills a Department of Ag position split between the two, as is Keating’s salary and the Bureau of Land Management JIO-PAPO coordinator. That has been Kellie Roadifer, who retires this week after 30 years.
Chris Wichmann of the Department of Ag asked if a “placeholder” was needed in the PAPO budget to move Game and Fish biologist Kerry Gold’s salary from the JIO. In the end, the board voted to split it between the two entities.
Costs of running the PAPO and the JIO – which have paid out millions for wildlife monitoring, conservation easements, onsite and offsite mitigation and habitat improvements – include salaries, as important to the boards as their projects.
“My question is do we need two maintain the existing salaries?” asked Sublette County Commissioner Joel Bousman. “Do we still need two (DEQ air-quality inspector) positions?”
DEQ director Todd Parfitt said oil and gas activity is down with “a little bit of an uptick. … I don’t see it becoming less complicated; I see it becoming more complicated because of this new (Biden) administration.”
DEQ’s Darla Potter said the two inspectors “have more than enough work with what’s standing.”
Roadifer warned about moving salaries from one budget to another – “You can’t spend JIO money on PAPO and vice versa; you have to maintain separation on the spending.”
The board approved PAPO salaries’ funding through the end of fiscal year 2022.
Keating said PAPO has about $1.3 million after prior commitments. After approving most 2021 PAPO applications, the balance was just under $1 million.
In December, board members anticipated $576,000 available for JIO mitigation and talked about dividing it up for “pots of funding.” They asked the team to define “buckets” for future projects under the ROD’s requirements of recreation, air quality, cultural, wildlife and livestock.
With a checkbook balance of $2.5 million at the end of February, commitments of $1.2 million and estimated salaries of $279,000 for fiscal year 2021, Keating said April 22 there was still money remaining in light of the “closeout strategy.”
BLM Pinedale Field Office Manager Doug Linn said talks with “signatories of the Jonah group” and many would like to see more cultural projects completed.
He added the Jonah’s “unique cultural features” could create some good offsite projects.
After the board approved most JIO project applications, about $840,000 was left – which Roadifer said the implementation team was not comfortable handling.
“For the team to come up with a strategy to parcel it out into ‘buckets’ and take over disposition of the funds – it’s still a big number,” she said. “I’m not sure what the comfort level is for the team.”
Wichmann said the “concept of buckets” was still relevant.
“We have one more year now, until June 2022,” he said. “Our goal is to try to deal out funds as soon as possible to projects rather than salaries; get it done without more salaries.”
Board chair Doug Miyamoto asked about streamlining the decision-making process in light of the board’s belief the JIO would close this year, not next year.
“We still have a significant pot of money in that Jonah silo so I guess we’ll continue to try and press for projects … that carry out the initial intent of that funding.”
SCCD manager Mike Henn suggested a project cap of $100,000.
“We have granted latitude in the past to identify projects and move forward,” Miyamoto said. “I would support a scenario where the board (capped) a project if the implementation team agrees it supports the ROD intentions. We’re just trying to be graceful at the end of the JIO.”
DEQ director Todd Parfitt suggested capping eight team-driven projects at $100,000.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Miyamoto said. “We can continue to move forward as best we can, I suppose.”
Roadifer added the board could require the team to make a unanimous decision or bring the request before the board. The board approved the motion.
“A new assignment – for the implementation team to develop projects,” Miyamoto said.
The board also approved allowing the team to consider projects that don’t strictly meet JIO criteria.