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City meeting filled with frustration

by Larry Patrick

WALSENBURG– As public meetings go, the Walsenburg Finance Meeting Monday night was painful to watch.  Numerous visitors to the meeting expressed dismay and frustration at the way the city council members and city staff seemed to be in a state of disarray.

    The evening began badly when the finance committee, made up of all nine city council members, went over the long term liabilities the city currently has.  Finance Director Krystel Vigil, inadvertently put down $970,000 on the report when she meant $9,700,000 for the water & sewer refunding bonds.  Councilwoman Erin Jerant railed about the mistake even though it was caught quickly when the overall totals were found to be correct.  Jerant then argued that the figures should not show just the current debt but also the interest until 2032, totaling 17 million dollars.  Other council members argued the report was about what the city owed today.

    City administrator Alan Hein gave his report on the funding for the new wastewater treatment plant.  He showed the finance committee the total cost plus the money the city had saved for the project and the money they would have to take out of the water and gas funds plus one other fund to finance the 5.2 million dollar project.  The amounts would get the project paid for but the city’s reserves would be all used up. But then City Treasurer, Jacque Sikes pointed out that some of the money from the gas fund has already been allocated for transfers within the budget and that the amount being shown wasn’t really all available to use putting the project back in arrears by up to $200,000.  The entire amount doesn’t have to be paid at one time and it will take a year to complete the waste water treatment plant, giving the city time to find monies to complete the state mandated project.

    The Finance Committee got good news in that the state legislature approved the house bill allowing the city to be able to lease gravel pits on the ranch east of town.  Finance Director James England said as soon as the city can put that out for bid, they need to in order to provide needed dollars. England said, “We’re in a big (financial) hole and we hope to blow it out with gravel and wind.”  He was referring to the interest of a company to put a wind farm on the property and having someone mining the gravel.

    The city staff then gave a report on the financial impact of the city layoffs.  It was reported the savings were over $200,000 but with the negative impact of the prison closing and losing water and sewer revenue, the cost savings were down to about $36,000.  However, some city council members questioned why the expense report was showing more money paid out in salaries than previous months, prior to the layoffs.  Finance Director Vigil surmised that it was probably the payout of vacation and sick time to the laid off employees plus the Cobra insurance and unemployement costs.  But others argued that would have been paid out in past months and it didn’t make sense to them.  Vigil was going to research the matter.

    With some other questions being posed with no concrete answers, some members of the Committee for the Betterment of Walsenburg wanted to know if any of the figures being presented were accurate and also questioned, “If the city council and staff don’t know what the budget is, how is the public supposed to know?”  Another quipped, “All we hear tonight is that the matter will be researched.”

    A half hour was then spent on seeing what savings could be made by eliminating some of the cell phones used by city crews and by buying uniforms for the city street and gas staff instead of renting them from a cleaning service. Using hand held radio units versus some cell phones could show a savings of $570 per month.  On the clothing, it would cost the city $250 extra this year because of initial purchases of clothing but during a full year, they would save about $5800.  The topic was brought up from the audience about the safety of washing and cleaning clothing with chemicals and sewer dirt on them, at home, instead of using commercial washers and detergents. The staff was to research further.

    A certified public accountant is to go over the books with the finance director prior to this year’s audit to see where they feel the city stands financially and report back to the city council. A work session will be considered to then go back over the budget for 2010 and make any necessary adjustments.

    Some citizens left the meeting grumbling about the lack of knowledge or understanding from their city leaders relating to the financial condition of Walsenburg.