An audit released Monday shows that a lack of clear policies and procedures resulted in Great Outdoors Colorado awarding $45 million in grants to organizations that may not have been eligible.
Grants are supposed to be distributed for a set of project categories – wildlife, outdoor recreation, open space and local government – each of which has a list of eligible agencies.
According to the audit, GOCO did not correctly categorize projects.
To fix this, the Office of the State Auditor suggested GOCO create new policies that are explicit in what projects fall into each category and also outline how much funding each category of projects should receive.
Since its creation in 1993, GOCO has awarded $1.1 billion in grants for projects that “preserve, protect, enhance and manage” Colorado’s state lands over its lifespan. GOCO is funded entirely from state lottery proceeds.
The state Constitution says GOCO is supposed to award each of the four categories a “substantially equal” portion of its grant funding, but there are no policies regarding what range that covers.
According to the audit, outdoor recreation projects have been awarded $24.3 million less than the next closest category and only 22.9 percent of the total grant funding from the organization.
Lawmakers on the Legislative Audit Committee differed on whether or not outdoor recreation had received its fair share of funding.
“I think over the lifetime of the program, you can see they are pretty goshdarn equal. I mean certainly in my household budget, if I was within two percent of trying to spend my money, I would be like ‘I’m doing good,’” Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, said.
Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, disagreed with Donovan but said the bigger issue the audit shows is the need for greater transparency of how organizations that GOCO funds uses its money.
The organization’s website has a list of projects funded across the state with total dollar amounts, titles and approximate locations but does not list how the money was spent or what the results were for each project.
Neville said this needs to change.
“What did it actually get you? And if you can’t show that and quantify that, then it’s always going to come under question,” he said.
The audit also found issues with how long it has taken Colorado Parks and Wildlife to complete GOCO-funded improvement projects – 4.4 years from planning to completion, on average – and CPW efforts to maximize the funding options available to maintain these improvements.
The auditors found that GOCO has funded 36 projects in state parks, but in the past four years 12 parks have requested grant funding to subsidize the cost of operations and maintenance.
This has placed increased burden on CPW to fund the operations of additions on state lands, such as new campgrounds or maintenance facilities, which could be offset with grant funding.
Bob Broscheid, director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said a lack of fee increases for state residents compounds the rising cost of operations and maintenance, both from having expanded park infrastructure and inflation. License fees for state residents have not increased since 2005.
Fee increases for hunters, anglers and park visitors, which generate nearly half of Parks and Wildlife funding, were a controversial topic during the 2017 Legislative session. A bill that would have allowed the division to raise its fees by up to 50 percent cleared the House but died in the Senate Finance Committee after opposition from fiscal conservatives, including Neville.
Broscheid said CPW would be expanding its use of GOCO funding for operations but there are already concerns with the division’s reliance on grant funding to maintain state parks.
Nearly 11 percent of CPW’s funding in 2016 came from Great Outdoors Colorado.
“Now we’re starting to see GOCO funds get used more and more for routine operations and maintenance. At what point are we going to use all of our fund sources, all of them at every park, to just maintain trails and maintain picnic tables?” he said.
Donovan said increased use of grants to fund CPW does not resolve the need for a long-term solution to its funding challenges.
“... But it could be part of their future budgeting process,” she said.