To my fellow Old Town water users, meaning everyone west of Fish Creek:
So you got your new water bill? How do you like it so far? Wait until the rain stops. You now pay, on average, about three times as much for the same water and sewer as your neighbors to the east of Fish Creek, in the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District. As it currently stands, this is only the beginning. Old Town residents and businesses will be the only group responsible for providing water to the proposed new massive annexation known as Steamboat 700. Remember, when it comes to water, only Old Town is annexing. The mountain area water rates, tap and monthly, will never be affected.
How did we get to be a town so divided when it comes to paying for water? The simple answer: aging infrastructure, years of subsidies from Old Town to Mount Werner and the "empty condo subsidy." The latter is the most important reason - the subsidy comes from Mount Werner billing empty condos at base rates. With one of two condos empty all the time, this results in a considerable subsidy to the Mount Werner system. To date, this unique situation has been the exclusive asset of Mount Werner Water and is the foundation for their record low water and sewer rates. To its credit, however, the new Mount Werner board has taken significant conservation changes and shows signs of being less predatory than the past boards.
That explains the past. But why the 50 percent rate increase on Old Town this year? When developers pay tap fees on new construction, the money typically goes into a reserve for future expansion of the water system. With all of the new construction in Old Town, the current reserve should contain millions of dollars, but Steamboat Springs City Council allowed the reserve to be drawn down to almost nothing, about $15,000. The practice of draining reserves for maintenance is a poor way to run a water district. That the current council was unaware they were draining the fund until the fund was dry really concerns me.
The council's only remedy so far has been to raise rates on Old Town. But even this won't be enough. Old Town water users face more rate increases to rebuild dollar reserves in an aging infrastructure and to replenish the reserves that result from years of ridiculously low tap fees.
But that's not all. Factored into the city of Steamboat Springs' new rate study are the needs for 2,044 new houses the council may annex.
So hold onto your wallet, my fellow Old Towners, you now have the privilege of subsidizing an entire new town. Not just when you pay tap fees, but every month. The entire off-site infrastructure for Steamboat 700 will be part of these increases now and over the years. Remember, only Old Town pays.
The first principle of running a water district is: Do no harm. But giving more than 900 acre-feet of our pristine city water to this new development, while not requiring any contribution of "wet water rights" from the developer, violates that principle.
There are many alternatives to raising rates continuously on the same people. This council has not explored or even discussed other options. It appears this council has no time to focus on current problems because it is too busy creating future ones.
Kevin Bennett is a longtime Steamboat Springs resident and former president of Steamboat Springs City Council, during which time he developed expertise about the city's water supply and its treatment and delivery system.