Steamboat Springs The town of Oak Creek was all wet, and now it’s trying to fix not only its water rate system but also how it deals with those requesting fee waivers.
Oak Creek Town Administrator Mary Alice Page-Allen recommended the Town Board table the Historical Society of Oak Creek and Phippsburg’s request to waive water and sewer service fees at its 130 E. Main St. location, saying the situation opened up a can of worms.
The historical society had its service fees waived until Dec. 31. The museum has continued to accrue fees from that point. Oak Creek’s current flat rate water fee system charges customers regardless of actual usage, resulting in the museum getting bills despite not being open.
The flat rate water fee system and Oak Creek’s previous habit of entertaining fee waivers make up the can of worms that now is at the core of the town’s issues with its water services.
As Page-Allen described at the meeting, there are two significant reasons Oak Creek can’t continue granting service fee waivers: contractual loan obligations and the town code.
“We are prohibited from giving away water services,” Page-Allen said. “There is a mandatory provision in our contractual loan agreements and within the town code that prohibits us from giving it away for free.
“It becomes a donation. It has to be backfilled through the general fund.”
Responding to Trustee Wendy Gustafson’s question, Page-Allen said this also applies to town employees who currently receive free water and sewer services as part of their compensation packages. Three employees receive this benefit. Page-Allen said it was her understanding that this was offered to employees in the past in lieu of other compensation.
Trustee Bernie Gagne asked about the countywide 0.3-mill levy passed by Routt County voters in 2003 that benefits historical organizations. Renee Johnson, the society’s president, said the funds allow the society to have a museum coordinator to work on projects.
She also said that the property’s commercial designation, under the flat rate fee system, makes the service expensive for the museum even when it’s not in use.
“I perceive that operation as not being commercial,” Gagne said. “Maybe there is a reclassification in the future.”
Gagne went on to cite the example of a town resident who requested a waiver for a property that was not drawing water and had it denied, explaining that the reasons for that denial were justified in the maintenance that still is required of the infrastructure. Trustee Chuck Wisecup suggested a minimum monthly fee for properties not using the service.
“As we move toward metering, we are going to be going in that direction. It’s just not something we can answer today,” Page-Allen said, referencing the town’s ongoing transition to water fee system based on usage. “We need to look at the data before we can really have that conversation. We have to do an analysis today on our flat rates and then tomorrow on our metered rates.”
In the next couple of weeks, Page-Allen said, the town should have the results of a water rate study done by the Colorado Rural Water Association as part of Oak Creek’s membership.
Although the previous system of waiving fees for certain organizations may be untenable, the Town Board expressed support for finding other ways to support nonprofit groups rather than backfilling donations through the town’s general fund.
“Looking at this year’s budget under donations, we have a $200 limit on that particular line item,” Page-Allen said. “And I think what that says is we very much want to acknowledge our local nonprofits and volunteers and work through them, but we got to figure out a way — if you truly want to do this kind of stuff — how we can financially manage this and what kind of policy would be in place so that we can guide these future conversations.”
Page-Allen suggested a group be formed with members from the Town Board, local nonprofit groups and herself to work together on a policy. Trustees Gustafson and Johrene Meyers-Story volunteered to help.
The Town Board unanimously tabled the request for a waiver of fees with the amendment that the society should not accrue any penalties or interest while a decision is reached.
The Town Board’s unanimous decision Thursday night to approve the land-use change from a commercial laundry to an accessory residential use for a downtown building owned by Shady Curry Holdings LLC will affect its water fee by more than $100 per month.
And continuing with the water theme, the Town Board discussed possible water restrictions if the season continues to stay dry. Page-Allen said the Town Board has the power to institute watering restrictions.
“What I was hoping was that we could bring a resolution that authorized the director of public works and the mayor to make a decision if in fact it’s necessary to impose watering restrictions pursuant to the town code,” Page-Allen said. “If we take a little bit of forethought, maybe we can hedge our bets this summer.”
Page-Allen said there are provisions in the town code that relate to watering restrictions, enforcement and penalties.
Members of the Town Board expressed agreement with getting ahead of the problem and added that residents already are admonished by the town code not to waste water.
In other news
• The town’s chief of police, Lance Dunaway, offered his resignation Thursday. Page-Allen said the town does have options in the interim. “We really have to get this department figured out big time,” Meyers-Story said. “The whole community is suffering because of this issue. It’s a bummer we’re losing someone who could potentially have been awesome.”
• The town received letters of interest for the two vacant Town Board seats. At the meeting Thursday was Jenny Lewis, a teacher at Soroco High School who has lived in Oak Creek for two years with her husband, Jack, who is a national forest ranger in the Yampa Ranger District, and her two children, Amy, 10 and David, 8.
To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4254 or email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com