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City Council bogs down on water and money issues

by Bill Knowles
The second city council meeting of the year highlighted some of the major issues Walsenburg will be facing in 2011.  Chief among the issues: a stressed budget and water for the Northlands.
    The city should reach the end of this year with some money left over, but it won’t be very much.  Just how much depends on decisions the city council makes now.  For example, the issues of raises and starting wages for city workers came up early in the meeting during the Finance Committee report and was later picked up in the Treasurer’s report.
    City Administrator Don Saling gave background on the pay plan a previous council had chosen for city employees.  Pay plan two was voted on in 2008, and that pay plan predicts that starting wages would be $13.75 an hour for the years 2009 and 2010 .  But in 2009 the city council put a freeze on raises for 2010, and the current city council continued it for 2011. Most city workers are still at $13.75 an hour.  Some department heads have requested a raise for employees who have several years service with the city.  However the wage freeze will remain in effect until the end of the year.
    When City Treasurer Jacque Sikes gave her report to the council, she pointed out that funds had been moved from the Community Banks of Colorado branch in Walsenburg to another local bank.  The amount moved is around $1 million.  However the city still has deposits at the Community Bank totaling around $150,000.  According to Sikes, the movement of funds from the bank was not a rejection of the bank.  “The city moved the funds prior to the news breaking about problems at the bank.”
    When a bank is downgraded, it should collateralize the deposits.  If the FDIC moves in and seizes a bank, a long process ensues before any depositors can access their money.  A lengthy delay in getting money out of the bank could leave the city scrambling for cash.
    The city council voted 4-3, with council members Nick Vigil, Craig Lessar and Gary Sporcich voting no, to approved Resolution 2010 R-9.  The resolution approves a “scope of work between Headwaters Corporation and the city of Walsenburg.”  The work will include a change of water rights and an augmentation plan for Walsenburg Ditch Number 5.  A change of the rights will include municipal, industrial and other uses as well as an augmentation plan that’s been recommended by the special water counsel and state water engineers.  Ditch Number 5 is currently designated for agricultural use.
    Some council members as well as some in the audience questioned the city about using Coler Ditch water instead.  Saling indicated that bringing up the Coler Ditch for a change in use and for augmentation would open up a “can of worms,” with possible litigation being filed against the city by minority water rights holders further down.
    Council members voting no on the resolution, questioned the necessity of having a vote without having all the information that an informed vote required.  The council then decided to have a workshop tentatively scheduled for Monday Feb. 14. 
    A more public meeting for discussion of the issue was considered by the council earlier this month.  Even though at the time the idea drew a consensus of the city council, the council decided at last Tuesday’s meeting that legal issues and water rights issues prevented a more public hearing from being scheduled to look at citizens’ concerns.
    The city council also approved, on a 5-3 vote, Resolution 2011-R-10.  That resolution looks at the range of fees the city will pay and the scope of services that Moses, Wittemeyer, Harrison and Woodruff, P.C. will provide for the work of preparing the documentation for the change in rights and the augmentation plan on Walsenburg Ditch Number 5.  Both resolutions, R-9 and R-10, will answer the state’s concern about the city’s ability to honor the Ackerman decree.  This decree calls for a water return rate to the Cucharas River basin of two gallons for every gallon lost on water used in the Northlands.  The proposed sewer line to the newly annexed area should meet the state’s demand.­