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Fruits of labor not enough to feed in Pueblo County

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Back in March, the latest statistics available from the Colorado Department of Human Services show 5,670 adults working throughout Pueblo County were receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. At that time, Pueblo had a total active workforce of 71,065. Eight out of every 100 workers in the county receives SNAP benefits, according to the state’s Department of Labor and Employment report. Each state agency respectively reveals that, also in March, 71,617 of 2,858,545 active adult workers statewide were getting SNAP. That’s 2.5 out of every 100 workers.

Kevin Duncan seems unfazed by what may seem shocking and sobering to many county residents. This is because he views these statistics through the lens of an economics professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo’s Hasan School of Business. “These data are not surprising given the differences in average annual earnings (in Pueblo County) versus the rest of the state,” Duncan says.

Nearly 8 out of 100 working adults in Pueblo County were both working and still not making enough to leave the Food Stamp Program.

Wages telling

The professor explains that in 2016 the average annual pay in Pueblo was $40,196 compared with $54,664 statewide, referencing federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The income threshold for a family of four for SNAP qualification in Colorado is $31,590, or about 79 percent of (Pueblo’s) annual pay,” he says. “Since average pay in Pueblo is so close to the SNAP threshold, more workers will qualify.” Duncan further explains Pueblo’s income is low because of a high unemployment rate compared with the rest of the state (4.1 percent compared with 2.4 percent), a low cost of living countywide, and other demographic factors like the county’s lack of workers with the necessary education required for higher paying jobs.

Obviously, the professor suggests an economic strategy that emphasizes developing workers’ skills along with attracting employers who need those skills to stem the tide of Pueblo’s low wages. “This is generally the plan pursued by PEDCO (Pueblo Economic Development Corp.),” Duncan says. “But competition for such employers is tough. Other strategies would involve the creation and development of industry clusters. The local health-care industry is an example where CSU-Pueblo and PCC (Pueblo Community College) supply trained employees for work in the local hospitals that serve the region.”

The professor identifies the area’s abundance of underutilized sun and wind resources as a future “industry cluster” that can be tapped for jobs offering higher pay. “Pueblo has pieces of a broadly defined renewable energy cluster (the Vestas windmill tower manufacturer and local solar farms) that could be developed further,” he says. “Local higher education institutions could play a coordinated role in the further development of this and other clusters.”

PEDCO’s surprise

PEDCO is the organization tasked with bringing jobs to Pueblo. Jeff Shaw, president of PEDCO, chooses to be optimistic when looking at Pueblo’s job situation.

“Too often we as a community focus on the negatives and not the positive aspects of Pueblo,” Shaw says. “Companies we have recruited have found Pueblo to be an incredible place to live and raise a family. Pueblo does have some challenges, however, we are not unique as any city has challenges.
“There are numerous opportunities in Pueblo for those desiring to improve their individual situations,” PEDCO’s president postulates. “(The) majority of these are not low-paying jobs.”
Shaw adds that PEDCO is concentrating on attracting companies to the area that enhance the income level of the community. He also compliments the region’s learning institutions for their workforce training efforts.

“Bringing primary jobs to Pueblo requires locating and expanding great companies but also requires a well-trained workforce,” he says. “There is always room for improvement. Accordingly, PEDCO will become more active in workforce development in the upcoming months. You will hear more in the next couple of months.”

Can figures lie?

The statistics showing Pueblo County has a relatively high number of workers receiving SNAP benefits compared with the rest of the state could be, in a way, misleading, according to Tim Hart, the county’s Social Services director. He relates that a Denver-based group, Hunger Free Colorado, informed him recently that Pueblo County Social Services has the a 94 percent “penetration” or food stamp enrollment rate when it comes to issuing SNAP or food stamp benefits to those in need – the highest among all the counties in the state.

Michelle Ray, Hunger Free Colorado’s communications director, in reference to a report compiled in January by her organization, shares that the food stamp enrollment rate in Colorado counties ranges between 12 and 94 percent, and that Colorado as a whole has only a 59 percent enrollment as compared with the national enrollment rate of 74 percent.

Ray also notes Pueblo County has a lower per capita income than the state average ($23,420 vs. $34,542, according to the 2016 U.S. Census). “We know that per capita income is a predictor of high food-stamp enrollment of the eligible population,” she says.

Not an economist

Hart readily admits he is not an economist when it comes to analyzing why there are so many low-wage earners in the county. Yet he did offer a best-guess explanation. He says that Pueblo has long advertised itself as a community with a manufacturing base and, in general, manufacturing jobs tend to offer lower pay. He adds that Pueblo also seems to have a high number of jobs offering hourly wages like in the retailing, food service, and call center industries. Unlike salaried jobs in which workers are paid by the week, month, or year regardless of how many hours they work, hourly workers can be sent home any day without pay anytime the business has fewer customers. So $12 an hour, let’s say, amounts to a lot less take-home if you’re not working a 40-hour work week.
Hourly jobs, Hart says, are great for people in their twenties, but after age 30, workers need something more stable. That is why Hart touts a plan “to build pathways out of poverty” whereby someone who wants to be a welder, for example, receives necessary training and other assistance needed to accomplish that goal.

Politician’s perspective

State Sen. Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo) puts the blame for Pueblo’s low-wage dilemma squarely on the state. “The state needs to do more so communities outside the Front Range like Pueblo do not continue to fall behind,” he says. “Pueblo has a rich blue-collar history that stretches back decades. Puebloans are hard workers. Unfortunately, as the cost of living has continued to rise, wages have stagnated, and good-paying jobs have become harder to find. From the Great Recession, to companies moving their jobs out of the United States, hard-working families are struggling to get by. That’s why resources that fill in the gaps and help members of the community make sure their children don’t starve are so crucial.”

But the senator does express some hope for the future. “I do see great promise and opportunity for our strong community,” he adds. “Colorado has a very business-friendly climate, and Pueblo is attracting new companies and industries to come set up shop because people recognize our potential. But there is more we can do at the state Legislature. This session, we focused on expanding transportation options to connect Pueblo to the greater Front Range, worked on bills to incentivize businesses to make capital investments in the state, and worked to hold local utility entities accountable so costs are affordable for businesses to open. These efforts, along with others we will continue to work on, will help to increase opportunity for Pueblo families so they can earn a wage that really supports them and their families, and so Pueblo does not continue to fall behind our Front Range neighbors.”

Far and wide

The specter of low-wage jobs spreads beyond the borders of Pueblo County into southeastern and south central Colorado. State Sen. Larry Crowder (R-Alamosa) says, “With a declining population and economic conditions, it would indicate that the demographics of the area are correct in stating, of the 16 counties which I represent, 15 are below the federal poverty level. … What can be done is for people to not become complacent in our situation, but strive to improve our economic situation. To look for opportunities to improve. To educate ourselves on what opportunities exist. To continue to dream about the future. Government can assist, but we are of limited resources. It will take us all to do our part on improving our standard of living and recognizing what southern Colorado has to offer.”

So as statistics seem to confirm Pueblo County’s and southern Colorado’s low-wage plight, there is optimism here that things can get better and are improving. How long before the area rids itself of the dark clouds of poverty and replaces them with the sunshine of prosperity? No one can tell.

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Middle schoolers have a plan to stop rock art tagging in Western Colorado

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Courtesy gjhikes.com

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) — Arron Buehler’s day in a western Colorado canyon might not have had the Hollywood panache of Ferris Bueller’s day off, but something about seeing Buehler’s name scrawled on the sandstone escarpment gave Chris Joyner pause.

Joyner, spokesman for the Grand Junction Office of the Bureau of Land Management, looked at Buehler’s name — and those of many others emblazoned on rock in a canyon south of Grand Junction — and said that, paradoxically, there might be a reason for hope.

It was just last year that Buehler posted his name, next to Elizabeth, who left her mark in 2017.

Few of the names appeared to be more than a year or two old, and, “That tells me there’s opportunity here,” Joyner said.

The more recent the markings, the more likely the vandals are to be found, and the more likely it is that other methods might discourage younger people from following Arron Buehler’s lead, Joyner said.

Joyner and BLM archaeologist Alissa Leavitt-Reynolds are working in Grand Junction to deal with vandalism on federal lands, whether it be by graffiti artists such as Charley Humpy (who helpfully added, “Remember me” next to his name and yes, the BLM is doing all it can to achieve total recall), drug users ditching evidence in the desert, mayhem by “marksmen” and plain old dumping.

As much as Arron Buehler and a multitude of companions — Brian, Charley, Dizz, Dominique, Kay, Megan, Elizabeth, Jon, Sam and Tosha all seem to be begging for court dates (and Tosha, did you know your name covered an ancient petroglyph?) — Joyner said prosecution ought not be the only response to a growing trend of vandalism and worse on western Colorado’s rocky outcrops and arid landscapes.

Citations for vandalism aren’t tracked by the Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes offenses on federal land, so no precise numbers are available.

An Army veteran, Joyner is using his post 9/11 GI Bill funds at Johns-Hopkins University to study ways to divert people from what he terms “dysfunctional visitor behavior.”

“Dysfunctional visitor behavior” has a more authoritative ring than “vandalism” and “littering” and Joyner said he hopes that a scholarly approach can help agencies fend off some of the destructive activity on federal lands before it takes place.

Some of his research suggests that “informed participation in nearby historic and cultural sites” can influence the way many residents perceive those sites, Joyner said.

The students in Ginger DeCavitch’s social studies classes at Mount Garfield Middle School experienced “informed participation” last summer.

DeCavitch took her students into Bangs Canyon to see the mica mine and found the defaced escarpment “as we were stepping over broken beer bottles and charcoal” from fires.

Vandals had used charcoal to scratch names and slogans on the rock, DeCavitch said.

“They call it tagging” and few participants see any issue with defacing the rock, taking selfies and posting them on social media, DeCavitch said.

She contacted the BLM soon afterward to see if her class could help clean up the mess they found.

“They all wanted to go back,” enough that some students hauled 40-pound containers of water down an occasionally difficult trail to help clean the site, DeCavitch said.

Her middle school students sat silent as members of the Southern Ute tribe described how they perceived the canyon and the ancient markings, many of which had been defaced, DeCavitch said.

Far from being discouraged, her students were enthused about tackling the enormity of the defacement, DeCavitch said.

“We have a plan that we’ll be back,” she said.

Introducing young people properly to wild lands is one way to discourage future vandals and dysfunctional visitors.

It’s one “foot-in-the-door” tactic that Joyner hopes land managers take up.

Visitors also can be endowed with a sense of ownership by agreeing with a simple proposition — the idea that one ought not litter on public lands, for instance — and then be brought along to agree with how to visit them appropriately, Joyner said.

It’s part of a human tendency to want to be consistent, he said. People who agree not to litter tend to want to build on that as opposed to act in contradictory fashion, he said.

Even providing a small gift or trinket can engender a sense of responsibility among potential vandals, Joyner said.

Other techniques include the “broken-window” approach — the idea that replacing broken glass as soon as it’s found and thus denying miscreants their moment of victory — isn’t as easy as it might be in other environments, Joyner said.

DeCavitch’s class, for instance, learned that while cleaning up a mess might eliminate an eyesore, it also could erase history.

Her eager middle-schoolers couldn’t go forward with the cleanup until members of the Southern Ute Tribe, headquartered in Duchesne, Utah, approved the plan, DeCavitch said.

While Joyner’s studies have suggested that males 16 to 25 who live within 60 miles of Grand Junction are the likely offenders, one look at the escarpment suggests that young women are more active participants than crime statistics might suggest, Joyner said.

One study suggests that younger people prefer non-coercive approaches, but Joyner said that doesn’t mean the BLM is losing interest in prosecuting vandals and others.

Far from it.

BLM officials routinely contact school officials and consult high school yearbooks to match the names they come across with people who could be prosecuted.

Some miscreants make it easier, posting selfies of themselves with their works. Some even lower the level of difficulty by including hashtags.

The criminal exposure can reach felony levels because of the difficulty and expense of dealing with cleaning up or restoring the markings that date back hundreds of years.

If the malefactors are found, Joyner said, “We don’t write warning tickets.”

___

Information from: The Daily Sentinel, http://www.gjsentinel.com

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The #WhatNow of #MeToo for the #COLeg

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AP Photo/David Zalubowski

When several lawmakers, lobbyists and staff at the state Legislature came forward this fall to allege they were victims of sexual harassment by lawmakers, two big questions followed: how often does this happen? What can be done to prevent more cases?

Reporters have asked state officials the first question repeatedly, returning to readers with little response from the state. The latter prompted a conversation from leadership, but as for what’s next—how the allegations, formal complaints, and legislature’s response—will impact politics under the gold dome and whether women will feel any safer is to be determined.

So far, top state lawmakers have decided to hire a human resources officer—who would be independent from the legislature—to be a contact person when incidents involving sexual harassment are brought forward. Now, leadership is tasked with handling and investigating such claims.

The group also decided to hire an independent consultant to review the legislature’s sexual harassment policy, and lawmakers, staff, and aides will undergo another round of sexual harassment training this year. Typically, those working at the Legislature are only required to go through training every two years.

Those changes are a good start, said Erin Hottenstein, executive director of Colorado 50/50, an organization that aims to get more women in public office. But the legislature stopped short of changing any current policies. And Colorado 50/50 called for an entire overhaul.

“I’m very pleased that there was a recognition that the policy needs to be improved,” Hottenstein said.

But there weren’t any specific recommendations regarding transparency, which Hottenstein said is significant in looking at what happens next.

Lawmakers and staff said they couldn’t disclose how many sexual harassment claims that leadership in each chamber have received because they were personnel issues.

“I think there’s a way to be transparent and safe,” Hottenstein said. “There should be a high- level summary document that shows on a certain date a sexual harassment complaint was made and who it was against and a date of a deposition and what the result was.”

Hottenstein said transparency becomes crucial in these cases because it leads to accountability and the public’s right to know what actions the people elected to office are taking.

In October, Pueblo Rep. Daneya Esgar broke her silence posting on Facebook that she was no stranger to sexual harassment and experienced it just a week earlier with a colleague she works with regularly as a lawmaker. The post was part of the #MeToo movement after a New York Times expose highlighted the stories of several women who said they’d been sexually harassed or assaulted by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Then, a flood of other allegations were brought to the surface in Colorado politics. Rep. Faith Winter said fellow House member Steve Lebsock had harassed her at a legislative party in 2016. Winter and a lobbyist say they filed formal complaints against Lebsock.

An intern said Sen. Randy Baumgardner harassed her with sexually suggestive comments. The same went for Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial, who was accused of telling an intern that if she wanted to get ahead in her career, he could help.

Rep. Paul Rosenthal, who is openly gay, allegedly groped a man and used his seat to try and get a date with another.

But the case between Lebsock and Winter gained the most attention, even prompting Lebsock to take a polygraph test, which the administrator says he passed, to prove his innocence. Lebsock has hinted that the entire incident may be a case of dirty politics, alleging that Winter is the one lying.

When several lawmakers were asked if the case would mean a splintered Democratic party in the House, they were unsure, but optimistic about the session.

Still, there haven’t been any resignations over the allegations, though several, including leadership and editorial boards from across the state, said these legislators should step down from their seat. Some even called for House Speaker Crisanta Duran to step down from her position because she promoted Lebsock to a chairmanship despite knowing there was an incident between him and Winter.

The transparency piece has yet to be addressed by state lawmakers, and it’s unclear whether any policy or legislative changes will address that in the coming months. But for what it’s worth, the women who have broken their silence about sexual harassment in the Legislature are supportive of the changes leadership has discussed.

“I’m encouraged to see the direction leadership is taking when it comes to developing new and independent methods of dealing with complaints of sexual harassment at the Capitol,” said Esgar, who still hasn’t named the colleague she said grabbed her thigh at a legislative event earlier this year. “I’m hopeful that new ideas are still being formulated and considered, when it comes to ways to change the culture itself.”

The lawmaker added that a new session will certainly mean new ideas will come to light, “it’s our responsibility to lead the state in changing cultures to help make work environments safe and productive for all employees on every level.”

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20 cities primed on the Amazon wishlist to be its next HQ

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NEW YORK (AP) — Amazon’s second home could be in an already tech-heavy city, such as Boston, New York or Austin, Texas. Or it could be in the Midwest, say, Indianapolis or Columbus, Ohio. Or the company could go outside the U.S. altogether and set up shop in Toronto.

Those six locations, as well as 14 others, made it onto Amazon’s not-so-short shortlist Thursday of places under consideration for the online retailing giant’s second headquarters.

The 20 picks, narrowed down from 238 proposals, are concentrated mostly in the East and the Midwest and include several of the biggest metro areas in the country, such as Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles, the only West Coast city on the list.

The Seattle-based company set off fierce competition last fall when it announced that it was looking for a second home, promising 50,000 jobs and construction spending of more than $5 billion. Many cities drew up elaborate presentations that included rich financial incentives.

The list of finalists highlights a key challenge facing the U.S. economy: Jobs and economic growth are increasingly concentrated in a few large metro areas, mostly on the East and West Coasts and a few places in between, such as Texas.

Nearly all the cities on Amazon’s list already have growing economies, low unemployment and highly educated populations.

“Amazon has picked a bunch of winners,” said Richard Florida, an economic development expert and professor at the University of Toronto who helped develop that city’s bid. “It really reflects winner-take-all urbanism.”

Among those that didn’t make the cut were Detroit, a disappointment for those excited about progress since the city came out of bankruptcy, and Memphis, Tennessee, where the mayor said the city gave it its “best shot.” San Diego also failed to advance.

“Getting from 238 to 20 was very tough,” said Holly Sullivan, who oversees Amazon’s public policy. “All the proposals showed tremendous enthusiasm and creativity.”

Amazon said it will make a final selection sometime this year.

Besides Austin, another Texas city made the cut: Dallas. In the South, Miami and Atlanta are being considered.

Officials in cities that made the shortlist took the opportunity to further tout their locations, with Philadelphia’s mayor noting “all that Philadelphia has to offer” and officials in and around Pittsburgh citing the region’s “world-class talent pool” and other advantages.

Other contenders among the 20 include Denver; Montgomery County, Maryland; Nashville, Tennessee; Newark, New Jersey; Northern Virginia; and Raleigh, North Carolina.

“It’s a long list for a shortlist,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at job site Indeed.

He said Amazon may use the list to pit the locations against each other and get better tax breaks or other incentives. Two metro areas, New York and Washington, have more than one location on the list, increasing the competition there, he said.

“It’s hard to say whether all these places are in play or Amazon wanted to encourage continued competition,” Kolko said.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether locations would be able to change their proposals or offer better incentives, but said in a statement that it will “work with each of the candidate locations to dive deeper into their proposals.”

State and local governments played up the amenities they think make their locations the best choice. Some pulled off stunts to stand out, such as New York, which lit the Empire State Building in Amazon orange.

Some gimmicks didn’t work: Tucson, Arizona, which sent a 21-foot cactus to Seattle, did not make the list. Neither did Birmingham, Alabama, which installed giant replicas of Amazon’s Dash buttons.

The company had stipulated that it wanted to be near a metropolitan area with more than 1 million people, and nearly all of those on the shortlist have a metro population of at least double that.

Amazon also wanted to be able to attract top technical talent; be within 45 minutes of an international airport; have direct access to mass transit; and be able to expand the headquarters to as much as 8 million square feet in the next decade.

But Amazon also made it very clear it wanted tax breaks, grants and any other incentives.

Boston’s offer includes $75 million for affordable housing for Amazon employees and others. Before leaving office Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie approved a measure to allow New Jersey to offer up to $5 billion to Amazon. Newark is also proposing $2 billion in tax breaks.

But many of the state and local governments competing for the headquarters have refused to disclose the financial incentives they offered. Of the 20 finalists, 13, including New York, Chicago and Miami, declined requests from The Associated Press to release their applications. Toronto’s mayor said Thursday that the city offered no financial incentives to woo Amazon.

Several said they don’t want their competitors to know what they’re offering, a stance that open-government advocates criticized.

Amazon plans to remain in its sprawling Seattle headquarters, and the second home base will be “a full equal” to it, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has said.

The extra space will give the rapidly growing company room to spread out. It had nearly 542,000 employees at the end of September, a 77 percent jump from the year before. Some of that growth came from Amazon’s nearly $14 billion acquisition last year of the Whole Foods grocery chain and its 89,000 employees.

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Associated Press writers Josh Cornfield in Philadelphia, Matt O’Brien in Providence, Rhode Island, and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report. Rugaber contributed from Washington.

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