EDITORIAL: PAWSD Makes an Apology, Of Sorts…Part One

My phone rang on the morning of April 15 — Tax Day — and I was surprised to hear my ex-wife Clarissa on the other end.

“I’m online, filling out my tax return,” she told me, “and I wonder if you can help me with something.” For 32 years, we’d been filling out our joint tax returns together, so this was the first year in decades that Clarissa was doing her taxes all on her own.  In all those 32 years, we’d never used a tax accountant — we’d always done our own taxes.  And we’d nearly always waited until the last minute.

“I didn’t have any net income last year,” Clarissa explained, “because I was living off my student loans and scholarships, and of course with the divorce and moving to Santa Fe — well, I didn’t have any income, as you probably know.  But I don’t know what line I’m supposed to put that on.”

I told her, if she didn’t have any tax liability, then she didn’t have to file.

“What?  Nobody told me that.  Are you sure?” There was obvious frustration in her voice.

I was sure.  We’d been through the same situation, I reminded her, back in 2006 — the year we’d made a huge investment to build the PagosaDailyPost.com website.  You don’t have to file if you don’t owe any taxes.

“You mean, I’ve been wasting my time? Why didn’t I call you four days ago.”

I agreed. Really, why didn’t she call me four days ago?

“Because you still haven’t apologized,” she told me frankly.  And then she burst out laughing at her own comment.  She’d been married to me for 32 years — she knew very well I wasn’t going to apologize.  But a part of her was still holding out, waiting to hear me say those two little words: I’m sorry.

Last night, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District board and staff made a lengthy presentation for the benefit of the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners.  The meeting had been requested by the BoCC, and was destined, I think, to set Archuleta County on a new path.  Either the BoCC and PAWSD would enter into a dialog about the proposed Dry Gulch Reservoir and begin to work collaboratively in deciding the future of the county — or the BoCC would begin to exercise its statutory oversight powers, and start intervening in the water district’s financial decisions.

PAWSD had invited their attorney, Jim Collins, of Denver law firm Collins Cockrel & Cole, to attend the meeting on their behalf.

According to the website Lawyers.com, Collins Cockrel & Cole was founded in 1978 to provide “a full range of legal service — as well as management and financial expertise — to local governments.” The firm provides ongoing services to more than 200 special districts, municipalities, and other local governments throughout Colorado. Areas of special emphasis include general counsel representation of special districts and municipalities; local government finance; intergovernmental contracting; water and water quality law; and legislative drafting and lobbying.

You might summarize by saying the firm specializes in political law.

Collins had met early yesterday morning (at 7:30am, in fact) with County commissioners John Ranson, Bob Moomaw, and Cliff Lucero, and their advisors, County attorney Todd Starr and volunteer financial researcher Al Bledsoe.  That meeting had been closed to the public, as an executive session — but newly elected PAWSD directors Roy Vega and Allan Bunch had requested, and received, permission to participate in the closed discussion.  (I wasn’t clear whether the permission came from the BoCC or from attorney Jim Collins.)

At noon yesterday, the PAWSD board had met in executive session, again with Jim Collins.  As is the nature of executive sessions, the public was not told exactly what the discussion would address — but we might guess that it had to do with the upcoming evening presentation for the BoCC.

By 6pm, the South Conference Room at the Ross Aragon Community Center was almost full, but I was able to find an empty seat in the front row.  BoCC chair Cliff Lucero started the meeting off by reading a one-page statement from the BoCC.

“The citizens of Archuleta County are, and will continue to be, affected by decisions made in regards to planning for the water needs of this community,” Lucero began.  “Our constituents have consistently voiced concern over the economic model, the population projections, the amount of debt incurred by the PAWSD district, and the high level of fees associated with new construction.”

That paragraph neatly summarizes the controversy that has surrounded PAWSD since about 2006, when the water district announced the imposition of substantial impact fees on new residential and commercial construction.  Those fees were needed, PAWSD claimed, to help fund the construction of a massive new reservoir to be located in the Dry Gulch valley, a couple of miles east of downtown Pagosa Springs.

The reservoir would be needed — desperately needed, PAWSD claimed — sometime in the next 30 or 40 years, in order to address an impending convergence of two seemingly inevitable conditions: unstoppable population growth, colliding with a new PAWSD policy called the One Year Safety Supply Margin.

During the decade prior to 2006, Archuleta County had been one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S.   PAWSD projected that the growth would continue at that high rate into the coming decades, meaning that the population increase would actually accelerate in terms of absolute numbers.  (A 5 percent growth rate starting with a population of 10,000, means 500 new residents per year.  A 5 percent growth rate starting with 20,000 people, means 1,000 new residents per year.)  PAWSD projections assumed the district’s recent growth rate would basically continue unabated over the next 50 years.  Other estimates, such as the ones coming from the Colorado State Demographer’s Office, told a different story.

Four years later, those PAWSD growth projections have already been shown to be patently inaccurate.  But PAWSD had not yet, to my knowledge, admitted that inaccuracy publicly — nor had they adjusted the related impact fees being charged to new residential construction, except to increase them.

Meanwhile, Archuleta County was experiencing one of the worst economic downturns in its history — with the local real estate and construction industries being by far the hardest hit.  Surely, the downturn was fueled mainly by the ongoing global recession, but many people — outside the water district — were openly questioning whether the high impact fees charged by PAWSD were, in fact, making a bad situation worse.

Certainly, the PAWSD fees couldn’t be making the situation any better.

Over the past year, the BoCC has been looking for ways to take the bull by the horns, so to speak — to convince or compel PAWSD to adjust its Dry Gulch plans and impact fees to reflect the last four years of economic changes.  That was something PAWSD has steadfastly refused to consider.

Then, on May 4, PAWSD board candidates Allan Bunch and Roy Vega — two candidates who were outspokenly critical of the water district’s current policies — were elected by a landslide vote.  Although certain individuals and special interest groups have been pleading with PAWSD for several years to adjust its policies, this was the first time the community as a whole had expressed its opinion.

Finally, it was clear to everyone that PAWSD has been ignoring the desires of its constituents — the residents who pay both water use fees and property taxes to support the water district.

So, was someone from PAWSD going to apologize?

Read Part Two…


Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.