MONTE VISTA—During their regularly scheduled council meeting, the city council took a recess to hold a public hearing on a proposed water rate change last discussed at the March 15 meeting. Councilor Gary Johnson, who proposed the rate change, hoped to raise the base water usage from 5,000 gallons per month to 7,500 gallons per month before residents would be charged above the base rate. Johnson had argued the reduction was “a dividend” to give back to the community for their support and to help improve their perspective on the city. No supporters of the proposed change attended Thursday’s meeting and Johnson withdrew the proposal.
City Manager Forrest Neuerburg presented on behalf of the city staff, noting the costs of the proposal first. The estimates made at the March 15 meeting were not entirely accurate as they didn’t account for the four months of winter where the city does not charge for 15,000 gallons of water usage to prevent pipes from freezing, so the total financial impact to the city would actually be about $45,000 annually and roughly $30 in savings per year to each household, noting “The notion that $30 per year would significantly change anyone’s personal landscaping practices would appear to be overly optimistic.”
Neuerburg also went through additional expenses the city has to consider, “In August of 2010, the city borrowed $1.6 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to purchase storage in the Rio Grande Reservoir and additional surface water rights. In the agreement, CWCB provides 90 percent of the funding for any purchase. The remaining funds not-obligated in this effort are $98,000, so the city will at a minimum have repayment of $1.5 million. These payments are on a 30 year basis at four percent [interest] and would amount to approximately $98,000 annually. Repayments will likely begin mid-2019.” The loan requires the city to begin building a reserve to make the payments and they have saved about $150,000 so far by saving $50,000 per year. With the city still working on water augmentation efforts, they are also incurring about $3,500 a month in attorney fees over the next two years and anticipate about $25,000 of engineering costs to consider as well. Neuerburg also noted the city has roughly 30 miles of water lines that need to be replaced, with the water enterprise already operating as a deficit; the replacements will possibly have to come from the general fund already, which he noted “is not robust.”
Neuerburg explained he has heard often the water is expensive in Monte Vista and used the example a citizen provided recently, noting he paid $12 per month in 1975. At the rate of inflation, that $12 should be $55 but the city’s base rate is only $28 per month, “We are clearly not sticking it to the citizens.” Neuerburg also brought up the conditions of some of the lines and the need to save for a water storage tank at an estimated cost of $3 million, but the city can only afford to save about $50,000 every other year toward that as well.
Interim City Attorney Michael Trujillo, who was the chair of the hearing, requested citizens who were in favor of the proposal to speak, but got no volunteers. Several citizens spoke in opposition to the proposal, focused largely on conservation in the face of drought.
Resident Jenny Nehring noted it was “prudent” to consider going even further and explore possibly putting watering and usage restrictions in place and noted augmentation is a good example of why conservation is important. Resident and former mayor Raina Bowsher also brought up the unfunded mandates for sewer line standards in addition to the concerns Neuerburg had addressed, “we’re in serious trouble.” Bowsher stated lowering bills “creates a false sense of security that masks the real problem” and compared the current lines to “a 1952 jalopy” before encouraging council to instead do more outreach and education to the public to unite them behind the idea of doing their part to create solutions. Margaret Hurd distributed a graph she received from the Colorado Division of Water Resources, noting the basin was currently at 36 percent of normal snowpack and echoed the concerns about the upcoming season bringing the worst drought since 2002, “Our job as citizens and yours as councilors is …to show good stewardship and educate yourselves.”
City Clerk Unita Vance read a letter from former councilor Jason Lorenz, an engineer with Agro Engineering, which also emphasized the infrastructure problems Neuerburg had brought up and more technically emphasized his point from the March meeting about agriculture facing massive restrictions and portions of the rivers the Valley relies on being dry. In the face of these depletions, Lorenz noted the city “increasing consumption only makes your trading status less favorable,” in future water negotiations. Former councilor Matthew Martinez echoed Lorenz’s points and added the expense of a water treatment plant the city may be looking at in the next few years, another unfunded mandate of up to $17 million, and pointed out the contradiction between the proposal and the resolution to put watering restrictions in place next on the council’s agenda.
Laura Conchelos, a resident and business owner, noted she was originally from eastern Canada, “where the water flows” but even there the need for conservation was a value she grew up with and hoped the public will begin to explore “growing things water consciously.”
Mayor Dale Becker thanked everyone for their well-spoken input and noted he works in an agriculture industry so he finds water conservation extremely important, adding he has heard predictions for the fourth driest year since 1930. “I would like to respectfully say we do not do this…There are kids here who want to drink water when they’re our age and Charles’ age,” Becker said, kindly joking to resident Charlie Spielman whose laughter lightened the tense remarks. Spielman took the opportunity to point out the more serious problem was not conservation, but rather the city has to determine “How do you get across a 10 foot chasm with a nine foot ladder?” regarding the unfunded mandates and serious repairs.
Councilor Kathy Ellithorpe reminded the audience the San Luis Valley is an alpine desert, and even without drought the wise thing to do would always be “to look at the next 10 years.”
Johnson then spoke about his proposal, announcing he planned to withdraw it and would not be giving the presentation he had planned. “It was about stirring up a positive reaction in the city-it hasn’t worked.” Johnson went on to explain his proposal was less about the water rate and more about challenging people “to get behind the big plans we have” for the city. “Our city manager is very strong on ‘optics’ and the perception is negative, that’s fine, that’s a dead issue. Now what can we do to get this community stirred up, to get people at events… how do we get residents to be able to look at this city council and say positive things…how do we increase faith in this town? New businesses won’t do any good until we change the attitude in this town.” Johnson implied he would be exploring other options to encourage the town to get behind the council’s ideas and implied he hoped residents “won’t be quite as reactionary…. We have to rebuild this town, let’s talk about plan B and let’s get it done.”
New Code Enforcement Officer Jeffrey Huff took the opportunity to add to Johnson’s point about the attitude of residents, noting he jokes with Chief John Rosecrans “one of the two of us are going to get in trouble” because they are motivated to change things regardless of established procedure or legal advice. Huff called city hall “a disgrace” in appearance, called out neighborhoods for having drug houses, disparaged the salvage yard across from the “Welcome to Monte Vista sign” and complained about the train car issue, noting “ I don’t want to hear what’s ‘politically correct,’ [the train cars’ owner] goes in and out of court and nobody does anything.” Huff proposed Monte Vista find something the community can get behind as an identity as Las Vegas does with bull riding and South Williamsport, Pa. does with the Little League World Series.
Bowsher commented if Johnson wishes to give a dividend back to the community, “the dividend the citizens want is to see you do the best you can for Monte Vista.” Nehring encouraged council to look at the “galvanizing” unity that can be brought through overcoming adversity, telling council watering restrictions are a good opportunity for citizens to all learn their part in conservation and begin exploring productive ways to “rise to the occasion.”