Water commission back tracks

In the once married, mostly divorced relationship between the city and the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, the latest therapy session has the Steamboat Springs Water Commission asking how far back it needs to soul search in order to move forward.

Four months after its formation, the water commission is beginning to encounter some major stumbling blocks on the road to consolidating the Mount Werner District and the city's water and sewer system.

Requests have been made for the group to unravel the 30 years of negotiations and handshake deals made between the city and Mount Werner to determine whether one side is reaping more benefits than the other.

And accusations have started to fly again: The Old Town area is under-represented at the water focus group meetings; the minute-taking is inaccurate so the meetings should be tape-recorded.

Questioning the balance

City Councilman Steve Ivancie sparked a lively debate at Tuesday's City Council meeting when he asked for the council to support staff looking back at past deals with Mount Werner to see if an unbalanced relationship exits.

Ivancie's request was largely based on a recent finding that, for years, Mount Werner had not accurately paid the city for its sewage treatment coming from stores in the Sundance Plaza shopping center and homeowners in the Anglers Drive area.

The meter that reads the amount of sewage coming from the Mount Werner District lies just above the sewage pipe connecting Sundance Plaza's waste to the city's system. That meant Mount Werner was billing its customers for sewage the city primarily was paying to treat.

Kevin Bennett, a former council president who said he was watching the commission carefully to make sure every part of the city is treated the same, said the discrepancy has gone on for 23 years and affects about 150 users.

"It is appropriate for Mount Werner to pay the city for money (the district) has collected for a service the city has provided," Bennett said.

Joe Brennan, a 20-plus-year member of the Mount Werner Water Board and a member of the water commission, said the city originally billed Mount Werner an additional percentage for the flow not covered by the meter. How long that arrangement lasted, when that billing stopped and what other handshake deals were done in the past 20 years is hard to say, Brennan said.

"If someone is raising the question that somehow Mount Werner is taking advantage of the city, if the City Council wants to see a ledger that shows what has transpired over 20 years, I think it is fine. It is not necessary, but there is nothing wrong with doing it if people want to see it," he said.

If the city decides to look at past deals, it means examining the cost the city should have charged the district for years of storing water in Fish Creek Reservoir, Bennett said. But it also would take into consideration district improvement projects such as sidewalks, donating an old sewer lagoon to the city for use as a park and, most importantly, expanding its water storage.

Is rehashing productive?

Trying to figure out who comes out on top in the past 30 years of deals may be unnecessary work, Councilman Bud Romberg said.

"You can do an awful lot of brain damage trying to go back 30 years. My gut feeling would say when all is said and done, it is going to come up pretty close to a wash," he said.

City Council President Kathy Connell also cautioned against going back to look at past negotiations, worrying that throwing out numbers without the research to back it up would further divide the community.

"If we just continue to go back and forth when we are trying to become one, I think what will happen, we will lose the ability to sit at the table," she said. "We need to get away from (pointing) to who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. I think it is a mistake to have them go back."

Councilman Loui Antonucci, who is the council's representative on the water commission, said the next step for the group is to decide how far back they want to look and how much time they want to spend finding the information.

"Do we really want to go back 10, 20, 30 years? How far realistically does it make sense to go back? And, if you do go back and find a number, what are we going to do with it?" he asked.

Antonucci believes some preliminary research needs to be done to see if either side is overly unbalanced and, from there, the commission should decide if staff should delve further.

Other concerns

The council has heard grumbling about the commission. Two weeks ago, Ivancie came before the council requesting the meetings be tape recorded. He said concerns have been raised about the accuracy of the minutes.

At last week's monthly water commission meeting, the city staff was prepared to tape the meeting, but the commission voted 7-1 against doing so.

Antonucci said members of a commission that is supposed to be hashing out years of disagreement felt ill at ease with the tape recorder running. Besides the city Planning Commission's, Antonucci said, no other commission meeting is recorded.

Former City Council member Jim Engleken urged the council to record the meetings, saying what the group is discussing is a complicated matter.

Focus on fairness

Engleken also called Bill Martin and Paul Stettner, two of the three city-appointed members on the commission, the only true Old Town representatives. A sewer structure that makes a mobile home in Dream Island, which is in the city's service area, pays twice as much as a million-dollar home in the Sanctuary, which sits in the district, Engleken said. It appears fundamentally unbalanced, he said.

"The people need a sign that the city is on their side," he told the council Tuesday. "Please stand up for us."

Bennett called sewer agreement negotiations one of his biggest concerns within the process. He said under the current structure, the owners of a four-person home in Old Town would pay two to three times as much as one in the district.

The reason, Bennett said, is because the city bills on flow rates, and the district bills through a base rate. And because the district has a base rate and a housing inventory that is usually 50 percent to 60 percent occupied, it can collect much more than the sewage that actually is being treated.

That puts the city at a disadvantage, Bennett said, and he wants to see uniform billing with the city being the direct collector.

Brennan said the focus group members are all on the same page, agreeing that there needs to be a single, fair billing system for both city and district sewage customers.

The water commission emerged from a water focus group that was created early this year after voters turned down a water authority agreement in November 2002. One of the group's tasks was to look at why the vote failed and what to do to create efficiencies within the two entities. The commission's city-appointed members are Martin, Stettner and Nancy Mayer. The Mount Werner Water Board-appointed members are Tim Borden, John Fetcher, Mark McElhinney and Brennan.

To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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