Banks grow weary of 'green rush'
In early 2015, less than a fifth of the institutions represented by the Colorado Bankers Association provided financial services to marijuana-business owners, forcing many in the budding industry to make cash-only transactions.
"I can't even start an account with a trash company," Herbal Alternative owner Garrett Smith said in January.
Bankers fear civil or criminal penalty. Backed by the FDIC, banks are prohibited from receiving cash from pot shops, since marijuana is outlawed under the federal Controlled Substances Act. A bank that accepts cash from a dispensary could be held liable for money laundering.
Edward G. Merritt, Jr., president of Dolores State Bank stated that it was too risky to provide banking services until Congress took action.
"We would love to be able to help serve other customers, but our hands are tied due to the FDIC," he said.
For U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, legislation wasn't a Top 10 priority, adding Congress faced more important issues.
Throughout 2015, Colorado collected about $10 million in monthly taxes from marijuana sales.
Dove Creek woman murdered in home
Also in January, a woman was apparently strangled in Dove Creek's first homicide case in three decades.
William Blackburn, 45, of Dove Creek, is expected to face a jury trial in March on a charge of second-degree murder as an act of domestic violence in the killing of 61-year-old Cindy Johnson on Jan. 7. Investigators believe Blackburn killed Johnson after she refused to join him in bed.
Johnson reportedly suffered bruising on her throat and arms. Blackburn's DNA was reportedly found under her fingernails.
Defense attorneys say Johnson died of a drug overdose in the couple's home. Blackburn could face 48 years in prison.
Kids, trauma and justice: a special report
Studies reveal that Native American children endure traumatic hardships early and often in life, placing them at a disadvantage compared with whites.
Reversing that cycle is difficult, in part because it's generational.
"Unless there is something in our lives that lets us know that this wrong, then the trauma just keeps repeating," said Rose Jergens, of the Four Corners Child Advocacy Center in Cortez.
To move past generations of mistrust and racial bias, Ute Mountain Ute attorney Peter Ortego said tribal members and border town officials in Cortez must collaborate.
"We have to work together to understand our passions, our faults and our expertise to figure out a way to build those synergies," he said.
The school-to-prison pipeline has been identified as a national and local problem. Liaisons at local schools work with Natives to address concerns, but Ortego said classroom educators needed to remedy bias to ensure progress.
Addressing the disproportionate number of Natives who are suspended, expelled or referred to law enforcement, Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 Superintendent Alex Carter agreed that some teachers might express bias. "It's something that concerns me, but I don't have any real answers for you," he said.
NCA/wilderness area is proposed
A draft bill would ask Congress to designate portions of the Lower Dolores River as a National Conservation Area and Wilderness Area.
The proposed legislation was created over a five-year period by a subcommittee put together by the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group.
It was released in April for discussion, but hasn't been introduced to Congress, and doesn't have a House or Senate sponsor.
Master Lease Plan sets commissioners on edge
In May, the BLM decided to consider drafting a master lease plan that could further regulate oil and gas development in Montezuma and La Plata counties.
A process to determine if an MLP is warranted began this summer, and the issue has been hotly debated. If it moves forward, the plan would affect BLM lands and federal minerals potentially available for lease to oil and gas companies for development. A panel made up of Montezuma and La Plata county members was created to study whether an MLP is needed, and several public meetings will be held in 2016. The core issue to be discussed is if the proposed MLP area deserves more regulation to protect recreational, cultural, and other values from oil and gas development. Areas of concern include the Phil's World biking area and east of Mesa Verde National Park.
Police pursuit ends with murder-suicide
A Florida man and his niece died in New Mexico after a near 45-minute police pursuit originating in Cortez.
The driver of the vehicle was a person of interest in the theft of a firearm and the disappearance of his passenger, a 14-year-old niece. Both apparently died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds after crashing on a dirt road in Shiprock.
The near 45-minute pursuit began a 11 a.m. on May 11, after a "gas skip" at the Conoco Convenience Store on North Broadway. A Montezuma County sheriff's deputy pursued the suspects at speeds near 100 mph while his vehicle received bursts of gunfire.
County wins Kinder Morgan tax case
In June, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Montezuma County on a Kinder Morgan tax case dating to 2008.
The appeals court upheld a county tax bill to Kinder Morgan that resulted in a $2 million windfall divided among the county, the Re-1 school district and special districts.
In January, the appeals court had ruled in favor of Kinder Morgan, but reversed its decision in June after local tax officials and attorneys requested a re-hearing.
The county is waiting to hear if the state supreme court will hear the case on a Kinder Morgan appeal. If they don't, the decision in favor of the county stands.
The case stems from a 2008 county audit of Kinder Morgan's reported assessed valuations. The county assessor disallowed a deduction by Kinder Morgan for a transportation tariff through the Cortez Pipeline. County auditors successfully argued that because the company was a 51 percent owner in the pipeline they are "related" and therefore did not quality for the deduction. The result was a higher assessed production value for Kinder Morgan, and an increased tax bill totaling $2 million.
Hemp corridor sprouts along U.S. 160
This year, Colorado licensed more than 2,500 acres for hemp production, leading a farmer, a biochemist and a manufacturer to sprout a viable hemp industry in Southwest Colorado.
The process started in Mancos, where farmer Scott Perez planted three varieties of hemp seed this year.
Perez joined forces with Durango biochemist Scott Ottersberg, who was working to launch Green Lab Solutions to analyze hemp seeds to determine cannabidiol levels, or CBDs.After a laboratory analysis, the hemp was expected to continue east along U.S. 160 to Green Leaf Production Co. in Bayfield, where the hemp seed would be processed into oil.
Domestic violence shooting
In August, Garrett "Ty" Baxstrom, 38, of Cortez, was arrested and charged with attempted murder as a crime of violence and multiple counts of assault with a deadly weapon after an alleged shooting. The case remains pending.
According to authorities, Baxstrom fired three shots at his 37-year-old common-law wife after beating her nearly unconscious at the couple's home. She suffered two gun shot injuries and multiple lacerations to her face, head, arms and back.
After the alleged attack, she reportedly hid in a ditch for two hours before walking to a neighbor's home to call 911.
Re-1 dedicates new M-CHS
Hundreds gathered in August as educators, tribal leaders and public officials gave thanks and blessings during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Montezuma-Cortez High School.
Those touring the earth-friendly, modern two-story 152,000 square-foot academic structure at the public unveiling were awestruck when entering the library, the focal point of the new facility.
"Now that's impressive," a man commented.
"Oh, look Momma," added a child, pressing his face onto the glass.
The building opened for the first day of classes on Aug. 26.
At the dedication, Ute Mountain Ute tribal elder Terry Knight received a warm welcome from the crowd. Thankful for the turnout, Knight, a 1966 M-CHS alum, recalled being teased when forced to attend the old high school during a racially contentious era.
"This is a school that we can all be a part of," said Knight to a round of cheers and applause.
The first new school in nearly a half-century for the district, the structure's classrooms were equipped with lesson capture software designed to help teachers deliver education more effectively and efficiently.
The LEED Gold certified schoolhouse, including land acquisition, architectural designs, inspection fees and construction costs, totaled almost $41.4 million. A $22.2 million Colorado Department of Education BEST grant and an $18.9 million local 20-year bond measure funded the development.
Towaoc blaze leaves 7 families homeless
Seven families were displaced in October after a fire destroyed a six-unit apartment complex in Towaoc.
"There were no injuries," said Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart, adding the impacted families included a young couple with a newborn baby as well as senior citizens.
Cortez Fire Chief Jeff Vandevoorde said his crews were dispatched to the 200 block of Rustling Willow Street near Ute Mountain Ute tribal headquarters for a mutual aid call at 12:48 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 4.A total of 21 firefighters from Towaoc, Cortez, Lewis, Pleasant View, Mancos and Dolores helped battle the blaze.
Osprey lands job deal with Cortez
The city of Cortez and Osprey Packs agreed to a deal in December that provides the global backpacking brand with land for headquarters if it adds 45 full-time jobs by 2021.
The contract was unanimously approved by the city on Dec. 8.
The plan includes transferring a $225,000, 4-acre tract on the northwest corner of East Empire Street and Mildred Road to Osprey, and discounting the purchase price by $5,000 for every new employee the company hires. The agreement requires that each new hire receive an annual salary of nearly $34,000.
"Osprey has been a good corporate citizen, and we look forward to their expansion in Cortez," said Mayor Karen Sheek, who added that the agreement would be a great economic driver.
Osprey currently employs about 80 people in Cortez.