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Cucharas District at odds over budget

by Carol Dunn

CUCHARA- At its meeting on November 12, the Cucharas Sanitation and Water District Board of Directors examined the proposed 2011 budget and found issues that prevented its passage at the meeting.  The proposed budget indicates a $10 per month water rate increase, prompting Director Bob White to comment, “There are a lot of ways we can handle this budget without a rate increase.”  The District is about $20,000 short on anticipated revenues because of 50% decreases in service fees provided to several customers during construction.  One of the larger of those customers in the Cucharas Inn.  Another item on the budget that raised hackles was a “maximum 5% raises” note on the salaries and hourly payroll line.  “What are we doing?” asked Director Cal Sandbeck.  “We have a bad economy.  We’ve got to be more careful with this money.”  Sandbeck also commented on the employee insurance line item, which is budgeted at $87,496 for 2011.  Referring to the fact that employee health insurance is paid in full by the District with no employee contribution, Sandbeck said he had checked with Pagosa Springs Water and Sanitation and found that employees contribute 25% of the premium this year and that will rise to 50% in 2011.  “When you have limited funds, we can’t justify it,” Sandbeck said.  From the audience, Marshall Moore said, “From a homeowner’s point of view, I am very concerned that [the service fee] doesn’t go up.”

    General Manager Bob Northup told the Board that the budget shouldn’t be balanced by taking money out of employees’ pockets.  White pointed out, “The last raise for seniors on Social Security was January 2009, and the next possible raise will be January 2012,” suggesting that compromises must be made.  “You’ve got one of the most secure jobs in the County,” Moore said, regarding the District’s employees.  Sandbeck said, “We can sit down and hash this out.  My job is to represent the community.” Director Jim Howard, who served on the budget committee, said the health insurance expense may change in March or April.  “We don’t have a clue on the total cost next year, because the federal government doesn’t have a clue,” Howard said.  “It depends on what Obamacare requires.”

    On the subject of the illegal ponds in the Cuchara valley, Renee Albright told the Board that Bruce Cantrell has received 14 signed proposals from pond owners who want to join in the pond water augmentation plan he is putting together.  Cantrell told the office on November 11 that Snowy Range Reservoir Company will need financial buy-in by 99% of those owners soon or he will drop the entire process.  He has also raised the initial buy-in from $4,500 to $5,000.  From the audience, Doug Brgoch told the Board that there are 30 ponds, with 23 owners that are currently impounding water illegally, far fewer than Cantrell originally believed and reported to the Board.  He said he will begin sending letters to the owners around December 1 telling them to breach their ponds if they are not a party in the augmentation plan.  “There are really no depletions over the winter because the ponds are iced over,” he said.  Although he will begin sending cease and desist orders after January 1, Brgoch said the situation will not be critical until around April, when evaporation will again be depleting the impounded water.

    Northup reported that two years worth of biosolids – 20 truckloads – have been applied to the Jameson Ranch.  He told the Board that, when the water was turned on the first time at two of the ski resort buildings, 60,000 gallons of water were lost due to broken pipes.  The second time, 60,000 more gallons were lost.  Now all the pipes have been repaired or replaced.

    The District’s water tanks were inspected on Thursday before the snow started.  Northup said Pittsburg Tank & Tower used a robotic underwater camera and completed a full inspection of all the tanks.  He said the inside of the new resort water tank is in the worst condition.  “It will need to be addressed,”  he said, adding, “There is no warranty on it.”  Conversely, the oldest tank, in the Spanish Peaks subdivision, is in the best condition inside.

    Northup also reported that he has not heard back from the US Forest Service about work the District wants to do on the ditches flowing into the Britton reservoirs.  He said he is “not starting the project without their blessing.”

    Revisiting the discussion about 50% reduced water rates for customers “under construction,” White said, “I’m proposing that we change our bylaws to make it 25% for no longer than six months while under construction.”  White said that policy change should help with the budget shortfall.  The Board will take up the matter at its next meeting.