|(Editor's Note: The following editorial by Glenn Walsh appeared previously in the May issue of the Pagosa Post magazine. Used by permission.)|
"I lie. Why? Because I can...”
While it is not true that Indie Fest performer Will Kimbrough penned that lyric after attending a Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) meeting, he certainly could have. Sadly, for the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District — and saddest for its customers — a certain style of dishonesty has become district policy.
Of course, most of us take creative license with the truth, occasionally. Especially when we feel we’re battling on the side of the angels, the Ninth Commandment is often a frontline casualty.
To be honest, I stopped attending PAWSD meetings one year ago, right after the multi-media rollout of the $357 million Dry Gulch project, replete with Hungarian oracles of Delphi and ‘Berenstain Bears Build a Reservoir’ cartoons. After the meeting I found myself in a small group at the front of the room, trying to makes sense of the impossibly large price tag of the project.
Chuck McGuire, the reporter for The Pagosa Springs SUN who covers the water district, poked his head in the circle and commented, “And there will have to be a huge general obligation bond.” Karen Wessels, the outgoing president of the PAWSD board, responded with a good-hearted laugh, “Well, that goes without saying.”
That’s the problem: the “huge” property tax increase had gone without saying. No mention of it at the meeting. Six months earlier, the PAWSD board had published a pie chart, demonstrating to builders that they would not pay for the entire reservoir. The chart showed that 32 percent of the project would be paid by an increase in property taxes.
How could the district fail to tell the public that the property tax piece of the pie for the $357 million project would now cost $115 million dollars? Simply put, PAWSD does not want an honest and open discussion of this reservoir boondoggle. When the Dry Gulch Reservoir Project is discussed, PAWSD often chooses between two responses: “Say Anything” and “Say Nothing.”
How did PAWSD respond when nearly 60 percent of voters rejected a $6 million bond for Dry Gulch in November 2004? Three weeks later, PAWSD filed for water rights for a population of 300,000 and began planning a $145 million reservoir project. The rationale? The voters would have approved the bond had the election been better timed and the project better explained, according to Wessels.
Why does PAWSD not “count” 1,400 acre feet of water storage in Lake Hatcher and Village Lake — more water than PAWSD customers use in a year? Well, Village is the “last option” and Hatcher is cut in half by a concrete rib and its exit pipe is three feet too high. So, water can be pumped from the San Juan River uphill to Pagosa Lakes, but water cannot be pumped from the north half of Hatcher to the south half and then up three feet into the exit pipe?
What about the 34 percent of water that is apparently lost between treatment plants and our meters? Well, two years ago, the board made a case for more money for system-wide repairs. Board member Bob Huff lamented, “For about the past thirty years, we built a nice little water system, and it worked, and we just rode it ... there was never any capital replacement. ... Suddenly, we have 290 miles of water pipe and a lot of it is getting rotten.” Last year, at that last meeting I attended, district finance manager Shellie Tressler cautioned that the water loss was actually 28 percent, and explained that the porous geology of our area made detection of even the largest leaks a difficult task.
This year, however, the problem has been solved. PAWSD is not losing a Third World percentage of treated water. No miles of rotting pipes, no declining infrastructure, no porous geology. The water isn’t being lost. Our meters are simply inaccurate. And all of them are inaccurate in the same direction for our monthly bills, of course.
More troubling, perhaps, is the PAWSD practice of Saying Nothing.
Why did PAWSD allow disgraced (but shameless) local businessman Fred Schmidt to direct the Dry Gulch project for years? Why was Schmidt allowed to dominate the million dollar land purchases for Dry Gulch even after District Court Judge Gregory Lyman delivered a $1.3 million fraud judgment against Schmidt, characterizing Schmidt as possessing “a disposition to act fraudulently and with a willful and wanton disregard for the rights of others”? Schmidt came to Pagosa after engineering a $200 million bankruptcy in San Diego which earned him a permanent injunction from the SEC. Last report, Schmidt has abandoned his bankrupted partners in the San Juan Motel and Adobe Building and is riding out the recession in a pool lounger in the Caribbean.
Say Nothing. Continued...
Why are we being panicked into a $357 million project when total water usage by PAWSD customers grew by less than 10 percent during the ten-year period from 1998-2007. Less than one percent per year — while treated water losses rose to 34 percent. Our current reservoirs provide four entire years of storage, if water losses could be reduced to an industry standard of 10 percent.
One of the illustrations used by PAWSD in February, 2009 to justify its newly upgraded $357 million Dry Gulch project showed an aerial view of Las Vegas, Nevada — apparently meant to indicate that Archuleta County should expect a similar future. Hey, isn't that Pagosa Peak, there in the distance?
Why does the PAWSD staff refuse to answer questions about district debt at public meetings? Total debt already exceeds $44 million. Three-quarters of that debt has never been approved by PAWSD voters. The district simply continues to take on millions of dollars of debt by using our monthly water and sewer charges as collateral. PAWSD admits that the Town’s entire water delivery and treatment system needs to be replaced within five years. This is not a result of “growth” but of “neglect.” The minimum quote for replacing the Snowball pipeline and water treatment plant is $30 million dollars.
Can a mere 5,100 PAWSD customers afford to carry $75 million in debt — and then $200 million more for the Dry Gulch Reservoir? The district’s 2007 Master Financial Plan forecast over $20 million in impact and inclusion fees for 2009, 2010 and 2011. Few now expect collections to total even $1 million by year-end 2011. The plan imagined collection of $76.2 million in impact fees before 2018. The economy will have to rebound like Bill Russell to produce 5 percent of this money by 2018. Who will pay for the 95 percent that has not been collected?
But ‘Who Pays’ has already been decided. Read the following note from the files of the state agency which lent PAWSD the $11.8 million to buy half the land needed for Dry Gulch.
Rick Brown, Colorado Water Conservation Board, to Dry Gulch file, dated August 23, 2007: "PAWSD prefers a mill levy increase but if this is not approved by the voters then they would plan on an increase of service charges. For illustration purposes, Michelle [Tressler, PAWSD finance director] indicated that for a low water resident (4000 gallons/month) the increase in rates could go from about $19.00/month to about $33.00/month. While this is a substantial increase, it appears that even with a negative vote on a mill levy increase the project could be funded by rate increases."
So we may get to vote, but — just like in 2004 — PAWSD staff has already decided. Our monthly bills will be doubled and then more than doubled to pay for Dry Gulch. This much is clear: the ‘water rights’ that PAWSD is most interested in is the stream of revenue from our monthly bills.
Tomorrow, Tuesday, May 4, PAWSD voters will have the opportunity to make a fundamental change. In effect, we can vote for ourselves. We can put the customers and the taxpayers back in charge of our future, before the local economy is destroyed by PAWSD debt and PAWSD building fees (which can exceed $30,000 for three-bathroom house).
After years of staff domination and board acquiescence — during the three-year period 2006-2008 every single policy decision of the board was decided unanimously — two board candidates willing to raise questions about the Dry Gulch Project are asking for your vote: Roy Vega and Allan Bunch.
Unlike the other three candidates, Bunch and Vega are adamant about putting the taxpayers back in charge of our district. No more debt without voter approval. No guarantees of your monthly rates to the state for hundred million dollar loans. No construction of any reservoir at Dry Gulch without voter approval. And no proposed reservoir until the finances are as rock-solid as the dam itself.
I urge you to vote Allan Bunch and Roy Vega onto the PAWSD Board tomorrow. Cast your vote against secret land deals, disastrous debt, and a board whose communication with the taxpayers is a manipulative mix of Saying Anything and Saying Nothing.
Your vote for Roy Vega and Allan Bunch will Say Something.