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Concerned water users flood city hall

by Eric Mullens
WALSENBURG — Over 30 city and county residents packed Walsenburg City Hall Tuesday night and presented their questions, comments and suggestions to city council members concerning proposed water and sewer rate increases.
City council and administrative staff have been discussing the issue of rates for inside city limits water and sewer consumers, out of town water users and water haulers since early this year. Administration has prepared at least six different packages of proposals to increase the cost of water and sewer since discussions began in March.
On Tuesday night nearly every chair available in city hall was used as city water customers attended the utility committee meeting scheduled before the regular city council session. Utility committee chairperson, council member Erin Jerant, opened the meeting by inviting anyone who had a comment on the water-sewer issue to step up and have their say; and many did.
Council members heard from individual water and sewer customers who live inside of the city, water users who live in subdivisions outside of the city limits and from one person who buys water ‘off the wall’ from the metered tap at the municipal building. Jacque Sikes, and Fred Eccher, representing a number of city residents, presented a laundry list of questions the citizens would like to see answered before a rate increase is approved. That group, like those users from the Spanish Peaks Mutual Water District, presented their detailed questions in written form to the council members and administration. “We want to know who is charged what, and why,” Sikes said. “You need to look at all the rates you are charging, all the different rates,” she said.
Passions ran high on the issue of rate increases, but for the most part discussions remained civil and on point, although some personality clashes were evident. Many of the questions dealt with the city’s cost of clean water production vs. any proposed price increase. Administration discussed the cost of production, the legal mandates of the bond issue, which called for the establishment of separate water and sewer enterprise funds, aging infrastructure and local economic conditions, namely the closing of the private prison and the loss of a nursing home facility in the city, both of which have caused a large loss in revenue for both enterprise funds.
Council members and staff heard comments offered by a number of citizen rate payers in the committee session that ran over an hour into the regular city council meeting time. “We have a bond to pay, we have to service the debt, and infrastructure is in a bad state of repair and these items have to be addressed,” interim city administrator Dave Johnston said. “The city may be shrinking, but the bond payments continue to grow,” he said.
“We have had a great turn out of citizens to discuss water rates,” Mayor Larry Patrick said as the city and staff announced another work session to continue to gather information on this issue. “I want to get all the facts to make a good determination,” said councilman Nick Vigil. “The city needs another workshop to answer these questions,” Patrick said.
That meeting will be held at 6 pm Tuesday, October 30 at city hall. “It’s important that we all be there,” Patrick said to the other council members. To the audience Patrick said, “we feel your frustration and we’re probably not going to make anyone happy in the end.”
While council has discussed the rate increase proposals at length; there has been some hesitation to formally act on a proposal by some council members until a full city council is in place. The current vacancy in Ward II will be settled in the upcoming General Election.