Vail Valley: One contested seat on water district board
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – Among the special district elections in Colorado’s Vail Valley on May 4, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District by far affects the most local residents. Virtually every local resident from Wolcott to Minturn to East Vail relies on the district for water and sewer service.
This year’s election has one contested seat is between incumbent Rick Sackbauer and Avon Mayor Ron Wolfe. Both candidates answered several questions via e-mail. Their responses are below.
Residence: Formerly of both the town of Vail and Eagle-Vail and now, Highland Meadows, in unincorporated Eagle County, above Matterhorn.
Employer: Project manager, Vail Resorts Development Company.
Current elected position(s): Board member, Eagle River Water and Sanitation District; Vail Recreation District.
Why do you want this job? I want to continue using my 16 years of experience – including 12 years as chairman – and my expertise from the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District board, Eagle Park Reservoir Company, Colorado Basin Roundtable, Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Denver Water Citizen’s Advisory Committee, and the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Water Quality and Quantity for the benefit of our local community.
How have the economic changes of the past two years affected what the water district does, and needs to do? The last couple of years have brought us unique challenges, but I believe the district is well positioned to face them head on. The district has a strong balance sheet in both water and wastewater. We need to continue to prioritize our capital projects and bond appropriately. Staff is talented and tenured. They have and will manage efficiently.
Officials around the state are worried about the possibility of a big drop in property values, and thus, tax collections, in 2012. How should the district be planning for this potential drop in revenue? Property taxes are 12 percent of the total wastewater revenue and 24 percent of the total Vail water revenue budgeted in 2010. Therefore, almost 70 percent of the property taxes levied are for repayment of voter-approved general obligation bonds, used to build plants, tanks and distribution/collection systems. If property values decline, the district will properly adjust the mill levy to generate the exact dollar amount of the debt service for the year on the bonds, as the voters approved. The remaining 30 percent – the operations portion of the tax revenue will decline proportionately with the decline in property values. Future budgets will be affected by expense reductions and/or shifting revenue needed to user service charges.
While new construction in the valley has slowed dramatically, a proposal was recently unveiled for a new, town-sized project at Wolcott. What does the district need to do to provide water and sewer service to this new community if it’s approved? Although it was annexed in the mid-2000s, the district has had plans for Wolcott for decades. We have an augmentation plan pending before the state’s water court which will use some of the district’s Eagle Park and Homestake Reservoir water to augment future “out-of-priority” diversions from the Eagle River at Wolcott.
This will provide a dependable water supply for future build-out of that service area. We currently have one water tank ready to go into service. We have a significant amount of property “downstream” of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s property at Wolcott for wastewater treatment.
The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District doesn’t make a lot of headlines. What would you like voters and residents to know about the district they may not know now? Because the staff has so much experience and dedication, the district board seldom gets involved in day-to-day issues.
During my time on the board we have accomplished building the Eagle Park reservoir at the headwaters of the Eagle for augmentation and for snowmaking, securing water in Homestake Reservoir, interconnecting the water system between Vail, Avon and Edwards, upgrading our wastewater facilities and, last but not least, leading landmark discussions between Western Slope and Front Range communities about water rights.
Employer: Retired executive and engineer.
Current elected position: Mayor, town of Avon
Why do you want this job? In this job I can help the district be more self-examining, do better and more aggressive planning to meet current and future needs, bring greater public participation to the governance of the district, “sunshine” elections and decision-making, and improve services at lower cost.
Organizations must continually look at what they do, why they do it and how they do it. Their role and relationship with the larger community, beyond their own narrow focus, also must be continually scrutinized and evaluated. My leadership, management and engineering experience give me the opportunity to help the district move ahead with fresh perspectives and seasoned experience.
As mayor of Avon, I know that citizens and customers must have a greater voice in the district’s operations and decision-making and not have elections “below the radar.” This is a public entity upon which we rely for essential services and to which we pay significant monthly charges and very hefty impact fees on new construction. Citizens are entitled to expect and get more from the district than they do today and I want to help it do just that.
How have the economic changes of the past two years affected what the water district does, and needs to do? Growth is the major driver of district facility needs and capacity increases. We are seeing little to no new development, which moderates the near-term need for new water supply and sewage treatment capacity. At the same time new technology is available that can improve existing operations, increase capacity and reduce negative environmental impacts.
The district’s infrastructure is aging, and repairs and maintenance are more important than ever. This is the perfect time for more future planning, for looking at ways to reduce costs to consumers, reduce energy consumption and look for environment-protective projects like the waste heat recovery project with Avon. Planning with the towns to meet long-range development possibilities is needed and this is the window of opportunity to do it.
Officials around the state are worried about the possibility of a big drop in property values, and thus, tax collections, in 2012. How should the district be planning for this potential drop in revenue? The district does not levy any tax. Rather it depends on very sizable fees charged on new development, monthly base-rate charges on all users and monthly charges based on consumption. We all recently saw an increase in our monthly base-rate charge partly because of the falloff in new construction impact fees.
Just as every family and every town has had to cut expenses and live more frugally, so must the district. The district must live within its means and do only what is absolutely necessary until the economy recovers. It cannot look to already burdened property owners to pay more when they are already struggling because of the economic slump. All increases in any district charge, now and at any time, have to be better explained and defended in the public arena. This has not always been the case, including the latest rate increase. If elected, I will work to make sure cost increases are fully explained, visible and justified in the eyes of the people I serve.
While new construction in the valley has slowed dramatically, a proposal was recently unveiled for a town-sized project at Wolcott. What does the district need to do to provide water and sewer service to this new community if it’s approved? County land-use and development regulations require new projects to construct and pay for water and sewer infrastructure within their boundaries. Within their service area, this infrastructure must meet the engineering standards and requirements of the district and be turned over upon satisfactory completion. The Wolcott project is no exception.
Each individual building or residence will also pay one or more impact fees to cover their share of the costs of new water treatment and sewage treatment plants. Development is paying its own way.
Additionally, the developer has to bring sufficient water rights to the table to serve the project. Only if the rights are of sufficient quantity and supply reliability can a developer meet their supply obligation and for the project to be approved. The district is actively engaged in all of these steps and in the planning of how to use the collected fees for new facilities to supply treated water and to process the sewage.
The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District doesn’t make a lot of headlines. What would you like voters and residents to know about the district they may not know now? Voters and residents need to know a lot more than they do today. I want them to know just what the current capabilities of the district are and what they will have to be in the future under reasonable growth scenarios. All of us have to understand why we are paying so much for water and sewer services and what these costs may be in the future.
The management of quality and availability of water are made more complex by our having both the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District in the bureaucratic mix of governance and supply of services. An in-depth evaluation of consolidation into a single entity is called for. If elected, I will work to fully explore the pros and cons of a merger that is more efficient and economical, more concerned about the environment, more sensitive to and reflective of its customer’s needs, and more transparent in its operations.