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Citizen testimony turns the tide on gas rate hike

WALSENBURG — Facing both emotional and logical testimony during the Walsenburg City Council’s gas rate hike public hearing Tuesday night, the majority of council members voted down Ordinance 1083. The motion to approve the ordinance, which would have increased natural gas prices by 6.89 percent putting an additional $99,454 into the gas enterprise fund annually, was made by John Salazar II. The vote, which came after the nearly two-hour long public hearing, was 5-2 against the increase. Salazar and Mayor Jim Eccher were the only two voting in favor, while council members Dennis Hoyt, Charles Montoya, Craig Lessar, Greg Daniels and Clint Boehler voted against the increase. During the public hearing, nine citizens testified, the majority voicing opinions against the proposed rate increase. Jeannette Booze told the council she was there to protest the rate hike, “Think about us on fixed incomes.” Testimony from others in similar situations sunk in with the majority of council members. Their vote reflected the reality that the majority of Walsenburg citizens are not living a life of luxury, with many in low income or fixed

income circumstances. City employee Andrea Hoegg told the council she would be willing to go door to door to help educate her fellow citizens on the need to promote a half cent to one cent sales tax proposal to put more money in city coffers, but she was absolutely opposed to another utility rate increase. Later in the meeting, councilman Lessar would say he agreed with Hoegg’s thought the city should consider a sales tax question to voters this year. Businessman Gary Vezanni, armed with his laptop loaded with a number of years of city budgets, asked the council how they could ask for a gas rate increase, when the city’s gas enterprise had loaned other departments in the city hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past few years. “Your numbers do not justify the rate increase,” he said. His numbers heavy, logical presentation garnered applause from the approximate 20 members of the public who attended the meeting. Former mayor Larry Patrick offered some support for the proposal saying the city was trying to operate in 2016 on 1990s dollars, referring to the Tabor payback that still affects city finances, but acknowledge an increase would be a hardship on many residents. “Not every fixed income, or low income household qualifies for LEAP,” he said. Bill Glidden called the proposed rate increase ‘absolutely immoral’ noting while natural gas prices have been dropping for five years, the city’s rates to consumers have not. Andrew Holman, a Pueblo resident who owns property in Walsenburg, said, “You have a serious problem here. As an outside investor, if you want people to come here and live here, utility costs have to drop.” Joseph Papa, a young new resident of the community said a rate increase would force him to move away. A volunteer at Dorcas Circle two days a week, Papa drove home the economic plight of many citizens. “Today I gave out food to 89 people and I see them week after week,” he told the council. “Those people need that $10 to $15 dollars worth of food every week. This increase does not need to happen,” he said. The message to the mayor and administration was clear, while solutions to the city’s economic challenges do have to be met, they will not be solved with increased utility costs, at least as long as the public has the right to speak.