Council postpones water vote

Several concerns lead to city delaying consolidation plan

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— Former City Council members helped convince the current council to hold off on supporting the consolidation agreement with Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District.

Their concerns of unequal water rates, a water authority board with too much power and a public vote that would come too soon spurred the council to cancel its Aug. 13 voting date and table a resolution supporting the agreement.

At Tuesday's council meeting, council voted 4-2 to table the resolution and 5-1 to cancel the Aug. 13 date with the direction to hold the public vote during November's general elections. On June 18, the council approved the second reading of an ordinance that set Aug. 13 as the day voters would be asked to amend the city charter to add a water authority.

Bill Martin, who was council president in 1993 and 1994, was the first resident Tuesday night to speak out against an agreement he said would divide the city. He believed the current agreement would perpetuate lower water and sewer rates in the Mount Werner Water District than those in the city.

"This forever establishes different rates," Martin said. "This does not unify but divides our community."

Kevin Bennett, whose term as council president ended in 2001, said the current agreement would freeze artificially low rates in the Mount Werner district by requiring a rate study before an increase took place in the district and that any increase could be spent only in the district. But those connected to the city system, Bennett claimed, could see rates go up without a study, have rate increases be spent in larger areas and subsidize anticipated growth outside the city boundary.

Bennett presented the current rate structure that showed inequality growing between the two entities as more water is consumed.

Although residential water users that consume 5,000 gallons a month in the Mount Werner District pay just $5.37 less than city users, those using 40,000 gallons a month would have a $93 differential.

"To suggest that this amendment will in any way support and lead to a water and sewer rate equalization is not consistent with the facts. In fact, the opposite is true," Bennett said.

But Councilman Loui Antonucci said a disparity already exists between the two entities and the consolidation ensures the divide does not deepen. And with the agreement comes the greater likelihood of equalizing the rate structures in the future.

But former council member Jim Engelken said it is a permanent divide and a divide that favors the resort community.

"The idea that the City Council could permanently set up a situation where the resort portion of our town, the ski company, the large hotels and condominium complexes and the clients of large property management companies would receive preferential water rates at the expense of the people and businesses of Old Town is terribly divisive and irresponsible," Engelken said.

He continued by saying he was deeply offended with the suggestion that personality conflicts were the reason agreements could not be reached until now.

Council President Kathy Connell, who had previously pointed to personalities as stumbling blocks in earlier negotiations and is a co-owner of a property management company in the Mount Werner district, said she was dismayed and saddened by what she heard as personal attacks.

"I do feel there is a tremendous amount of misinformation out there and we do need the time to properly (sort it out)," Connell said. "I do not believe in pushing and shoving this amendment through. But I believe consolidation is the best thing for this community."

She also said the agreement being considered Tuesday night was very similar to the one drafted during the negotiations that Martin and Bennett conducted with the district.

But Bennett said during his round of negotiations, they had set 2012 as the year to equalize the two rate structures. He also said negotiations fell through partially because the two sides could not agree on how to form a governing body.

Residents raised concerns that the current agreement would form an authority that the council would have little control over once members were appointed to the board. Engelken said once members are appointed to the water board, they can be removed during their term only through a recall election.

"The authority will be governed by an appointed board that will have extraordinary power despite being virtually unaccountable to anyone," Engelken said. "In other words, while it takes four votes to get on the Water Board, it conceivably could take 4,000 votes to be removed."

But Connell said the negotiating committee's intentions were to keep the politics of running the water authority with the city and the mechanics and routine operations with the water board.

Councilman Steve Ivancie, who had consistently voted against the water agreement, said he was hearten by his fellow council members' willingness to postpone the vote until Nov. 5.

"I support the consolidation, but I am on record with having a real problem with the speed of the election and evidently I am not the only one," he said. He noted new concerns were raised each time he read through the 19-page water agreement.

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