PAWSD Gets Called on the Carpet, Part One
Bill Hudson | 3/10/10
I had to look up the origin of the phrase, "called on the carpet," to see if it were really an appropriate phrase for the title of this article.  Apparently, the term dates back to th days when ordinary people had bare floors, and only a very wealthy person — a person of high authority — would be able to afford a carpet.

As we all know, back in the early beginnings of human history, it was the people with money who had all the authority.  Thanks goodness that situation has changed.

At a special meeting at the Archuleta County Courthouse yesterday morning, the three County Commissioners approved — unanimously — a letter, requesting an "annual report" from the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District.

PAWSD is, of course, a semi-independent, quasi-governmental "special district" located here in Archuleta County, funded through property taxes and user fees, and mandated to provide treated drinking water and sewer treatment services to much of the county.  PAWSD has its own five-member board of directors elected by the residents of the district.  Those five directors currently include Windsor Chacey, Bob Huff, Harold Slavinski, Steve Hartvigsen and president Karen Wessels.

PAWSD also has its own staff, bank accounts, buildings, vehicles, and so on.

And of course, its own lawyers.  More about that, later.

The decision-making duties for geographically-much-larger Archuleta County, meanwhile, fall on the shoulders of three elected County Commissioners — currently, Bob Moomaw, John Ranson, and chair Clifford Lucero.

The County is legally an arm of the state of Colorado — a political entity which expects the County Commissioners to take good care of local issues, services and problems as best they can — using whatever tax revenues they can squeeze out of County residents and property owners.

Except in Home Rule counties, the County government must abide by state statutes regarding the proper way to operate.  The Commissioner salaries are set by the state government, for example, as are the salaries of the County Clerk, County Assessor and County Sheriff.

In a sense, the "special districts" like PAWSD are also arms of the state government — though somewhat more independent arms.  The special districts are usually governed by volunteer boards — folks who serve their neighbors as best they know how, without pay.

As a few of us discovered for the first time yesterday — sitting in the audience in the Commissioners meeting room at 10am — the County Commissioners have the power to request an "annual report" from any special district located all or partly within their county.

And that is what the Board of County Commissioners want from PAWSD, according to the letter approved yesterday.  Give us an annual report, the BoCC asked, that will clarify your financial condition and your long range plans.  Especially, give us some justification for the planned 35,000 acre-foot Dry Gulch Reservoir, and the related impact fees.

You can click here to download the BoCC letter to PAWSD.

I didn’t have a copy of the letter while listening to the discussions yesterday morning, though I thought I could pretty well guess what it said.  The BoCC has been working closely with financial expert Al Bledsoe for several months, and Bledsoe has been accessing documents and financial records provided by PAWSD.  Together, Bledsoe and the BoCC have been trying to assemble their own view of PAWSD’s financial and long-range planning situation.

Like many in the community, the BoCC seems to feel they have not been getting accurate summaries from the PAWSD board and staff.  And also like many in the community, the BoCC has doubts about the current funding mechanism PAWSD has put in place to pay for the Dry Gulch Reservoir — a reservoir PAWSD admits may not be needed for at least 50 years.

According to yesterday’s letter, the County Commissioners have been trying to get PAWSD board and staff to meet with the BoCC in a public setting, to have an open and frank discussion about PAWSD fees and about Dry Gulch.

“It seemed as if we were on our way to an open, transparent dialogue about our concerns over PAWSD operations, fiscal planning and the effect of those plans on County residents.  We wished to have that meeting occur in a neutral forum, sufficient in size to allow the general public to attend.  Unfortunately, PAWSD flatly refused to convene this meeting anywhere but its own office.

“By email dated January 29. 2010 Commissioner Moomaw confirmed that we had agreed to acquiensce and meet PAWSD beginning at 6:00pm on February 4, 2010.

“As the time for that meeting approached, Ms, Wessels contacted a member of our board and explained that due to an emergency involving Ms. Chacey you would need to reschedule the meeting.  We were dismayed that the absence of one member could derail such an important and long sought after audience."

At a PAWSD board meeting yesterday evening — a rather well-attended meeting, by PAWSD standards, with maybe a dozen people in the audience — Karen Wessels claimed that the BoCC letter’s claims about planned and proposed meetings were partially inaccurate.  She claimed she had emails to prove their inaccuracy, though she didn’t produce those emails at the evening meeting.

At that same PAWSD meeting yesterday evening, PAWSD manager Carrie Weiss also claimed the BoCC letter had contained numerous misrepresentations.

What is the real story?  Could the BoCC in fact have faulty information about PAWSD fiscal planning after months of studying PAWSD documents and records?  Has PAWSD really been stonewalling — making promises to meet publicly and then canceling the dates?

At the morning meeting with the BoCC, Weiss had openly agreed to prepare the requested annual report for the County Commissioners, and then suggested that such a request had not required a formal letter; a simple phone call would have sufficed, she said.

A few minutes later, when County attorney Todd Starr suggested that the report would likely be submitted by the end of April, Weiss had stepped back up to the microphone and noted that the PAWSD audit would probably not be completed until June, so it was unlikely a report could be completed until later in the summer.

The Commissioner letter, however, did not ask PAWSD for any audit information, as Weiss herself admitted at the PAWSD meeting that evening.

“But to compile this information by the end of April, I don’t see anyway we can do that,” Weiss claimed last night, during a very lengthy PAWSD meeting.  “I don’t know how soon we can get all this gathered for them.  If they want the audit information, the audit won’t be done until the end of June.  If they don’t want the audit, okay, we won’t give it to them.”

PAWSD board member Steve Hartvigsen, at that evening meeting, classified some of the information requested in the BoCC letter as information already openly provided to the community at earlier PAWSD events and meetings.

”This is just additional work, to again share the kind of information we’ve been sharing around the table for years.”

PAWSD board member Bob Huff put the situation slightly differently.

“I think what [the BoCC wants] is a public trial, where they haul us into a quote ‘neutral place’ and throw all these questions at us and have us sit there and try to answer them.  I for one have no intention of doing that.

“I do not want our staff to be totally consumed by playing political theater with the County Commissioners.  Our staff has a district to run.  And to respond endlessly to six pages of — dare I use the word ‘flotsam’? — well, our staff can’t do both.

“I think we refer this matter to our attorneys, and we follow their guidance.”

Read Part Two...

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