Tuesday, October 22, 2002
Advocates of water district consolidation, Referendum 2C, have made a number of mistakes in the months leading up to the Nov. 5 election, but voters should approve the measure.
The referendum would merge the city of Steamboat Springs and the Mount Werner water districts, creating the Steamboat Springs Water Authority to oversee all water and wastewater services in the city.
Proponents presumed that voters would be so eager to consolidate the water districts that they have not bothered with explaining specifics of the 14-page agreement. Even when critics -- including former City Council members -- tore into the agreement language, proponents were slow to respond.
The city's message to voters largely has been "trust us." There was no public input prior to the agreement and there was no public education campaign until long after opponents had created doubts.
The Mount Werner Water District hasn't helped. The district's board of directors has remained silent, saying winning approval of the agreement is the city's problem.
The result is Referendum 2C is in peril of failing. That's a shame, because the document is the best opportunity this city has to achieve what everyone seems to want -- a unified, cost-efficient water district where all residents pay the same for water and sewer and receive the same level of services.
That's not happening now. Rates in the Mount Werner district are half those in the city, even though both districts use the same water and facilities. There are disputes about why the discrepancy exists. But it is clear that without consolidation the gap likely will widen.
Critics argue the water agreement should provide a drop-dead date for rate equalization. And they say requiring an economic analysis to justify rate increases effectively prevents Mount Werner rates from ever being raised.
Those criticisms are off target. If the water agreement is approved, it still must win approval from Mount Werner district voters. Mount Werner rightly noted selling its residents on the agreement would be a lot harder if the document said residents' rates would go up on a specific date. And we don't believe language requiring an economic analysis before rates can be raised blocks rate increases. Rather, the language requires that rate increases be justified -- for the city as well as Mount Werner.
Critics also attacked the setup of the Water Authority Board. Initially, the board would be comprised of four members appointed by Mount Werner and three by the City Council. The council would make all future appointments.
This is fair. The Water Authority Board does not have to be elected. In fact, history shows voters take little or no interest in electing such representatives. Residents still have access to challenging members of an appointed Water Authority Board through their City Council representatives and the recall process.
It is right to give Mount Werner more appointments at the outset, considering Mount Werner has less incentive to consolidate than the city. And long term, the initial appointments will have little impact.
Critics also suggest the Water Authority Board is given inordinate powers in the agreement. That isn't true. The agreement gives the board the right to decide specifics of providing water services, but the City Council retains the authority to decide where that water will go.
Give the critics of consolidation credit for creating interest in a proposal that may have gone unnoticed otherwise. Voters have invested time reading a complicated agreement written in legalese. If only all elections stirred such interest.
But the criticisms are mostly off base. Consolidation doesn't favor the city or the Mount Werner Water District, but the community as a whole. And after a decade of discussion, residents finally have the chance to make it happen. Referendum 2C should be approved.