Petition could force Oak Creek budget decision to public vote

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— Oak Creek has some choices to make.

The town has a police department again after recently hiring two officers. A town administrator was hired in the past year. New parks have been built, and cherished amenities such as the ice rink are kept well-maintained.

Now, the budget line item that might make or break those services could make its way onto the ballot.

The most recent property valuation period is leaving Oak Creek with less tax revenue, and the next valuation threatens to be even leaner.

In response, a budget was drafted that made up the loss with management fees assessed, in addition to allocated costs, on the enterprise funds for town utilities.

This isn’t the first time money has been moved from utilities to the town’s general fund: Transfers were budgeted for or made in 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2005. And the practice isn’t uncommon in cities that manage municipal utilities as proprietary funds: Overhead fees, administrative fees, transfers, franchise fees and payments in lieu of taxes are used to contribute to the general funds of other municipalities in Colorado.

But Oak Creek property owner Scott Wedel and former mayor Kathy “Cargo” Rodeman have submitted a petition seeking to limit the town to recouping actual expenses from the enterprise funds or to have the matter brought before the voters.

The management fees, if left as indicated in the 2013 draft budget, would make up 44.6 percent of the town’s overall revenue. No rate increases are planned for electric or sewer utilities. Water rates will change as meters are installed and a flat fee system is phased out. Trash services are out to bid.

“We will lose our newly hired police. We will lose my position,” Town Administrator Mary Alice Page-Allen said Thursday when telling the Oak Creek Town Board about the petition and the potential of being prohibited from using the fees as a revenue source. “We will have a billing clerk and a (Public) Works Department.”

Town Board member Wendy Gustafson defended the fees Thursday night as a good business practice and a way for the town to be compensated for the resources on which the utilities draw. Page-Allen described the funds as a dividend to the residents of Oak Creek.

Wedel said Wednesday that he is concerned about the amount of the fees being almost as much as revenues from property taxes and sales taxes combined. He also questioned what might happen to the size of the fees when property tax revenue falls again in 2014, saying he is concerned about the ability of the funds to provide for future capital project needs.

Rodeman could not be reached Wednesday.

Wedel said he went to the board during the previous year’s budget workshop with concerns about future revenue shortfalls. Gustafson said Wednesday that the Town Board did discuss in past years what cuts the town could afford and always encourages department leaders to find savings.

Without the petition or if approved unchanged, the fees could be revisited in each budgetary cycle. The language of the petition or of a potential ballot question has not been set and could seek to impose restrictions.

Wedel said he’s not against the voters approving the fees. “I want the voters to have the voice,” he said.

If voters reject the fees and services and employees start to disappear from Oak Creek, that’s their decision, Wedel said.

“You always risk something. You have to trust the voters,” Wedel said. “You can’t have a democracy if you don’t trust voters.”

The cost of a special election is estimated at $3,000, Page-Allen said. Wedel said it is possible the issue wouldn't come before voters before the April municipal election.

Town Board members discussed the difficult decision to assess the management fees at Thursday’s meeting.

“I’ve heard from only one person, and she didn’t like it, but she understood it, and she wanted police in Oak Creek,” Town Board member Jenny Lewis said.

“If we had a choice, let the funds keep more of their assets. And maybe we can get more infrastructure fixed faster,” Town Board member Josh Voorhis said. “We don’t live in a perfect world. I don’t see what any other options are. I have yet to hear any solutions.”

To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206 or email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com

Comments

Scott Wedel 2 years, 1 month ago

You have the option to put taking money from monopoly utilities into the general fund AFTER A PUBLIC VOTE!!!

Required monopoly utilities in which the Town sets the utility rates feels like and acts like a tax. The TABOR Amendment to the Colorado Constitution promises the citizens the ability to vote on tax increases. It is patently absurd, and using a loophole in the wording of the TABOR Amendment, for a local government to take more money from citizens without seeking a public vote than from two taxes combined, property and sales, which are subject to TABOR.

I would hope and expect that Town Board of Oak Creek would propose how much money they would take and justify that based upon for what it would be used.

It is also misleading to suggest that the petition initiative would require annual approval of revenues. Town could easily propose and seek voter approvals of an utility tax to take a percentage of utility revenues. An utility tax is added to utility bills and so takes money before it enters the utility funds and so the initiative would not apply.

It is also unexplained why utility rates were not too long ago raised to bring in additional revenues needed for operating and maintaining the utilities, but now suddenly there is 15% more revenues than needed in electrical and sewer, and 5% more revenues than needed in water and trash. Either rates had been raised too high and could now be lowered (water and sewer rates are among the highest in the state) or maintenance previously considered important is being sacrificed.

The trash fund used to merely bill for the contracted garbage company and reimburse Town for that service. To create this 5% additional revenues to be transferred is going to require a 5% rate hike above and beyond whatever rate hikes come from the garbage company.

Trustee Wendy Gustafson misses the point now and missed the point at last year's budget session. The point is that when the future shows upcoming major declines in revenues then it is wise to be building the reserve to get the upcoming revenue crunch.

I think everyone should be concerned that Town is proposing taking $180,040 for a year they project about a $10,000 decrease in property and sales taxes. Next year they expect to lose $50,000 in revenues and so how much will be needed then? And these large amount for how many years? All without ever asking for voter approvals? That is not how democracy is supposed to work.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 1 month ago

At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of voters to approve funding for the programs they want from government.

The TABOR Amendment makes it the responsibility of voters to fund government at the appropriate level.

I think it says something about Town government's opinion of the citizens when government assumes the citizens would not approve these utility taxes (management fees). It is illuminating how Town Government never considered budgeting within revenues or asking voters for additional revenues. Town Government, to preserve itself at a size it wishes to be, simply decided to find money not subject to voter approvals and will raise utility rates as needed to cover what is being transferred from the utilities into the general fund. I further note that Town Government never publicized that this was their plan. I had to figure it out from reading their proposed budget. I wrote a letter to the editor to break this story. It is pretty clear how little this Town Government trusts the public and how threatened they are by the idea of voter input.

At some point, a democracy requires trusting the voters.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 1 month ago

As for the claim that the initiative would cause such deep cuts. There would be cuts only if the voters do not pass the proposed level of utility fund transfers.

Even if that were to occur then it is a scare tactic to say "We will have a billing clerk and a (Public) Works Department.”. Because that is pretty much what, according to the budgets, is how Town government exists today. 2013 General Fund salaries total $44,075 That is less than half of Town Administrator's compensation package of $74,000 plus $17,000 of retirement plan payments. And that is just one of 3 staff members working in Town Hall..

How is it possible that general fund expenditures for salaries is less than half the salary of one of their staff employees? Because, according to the budget, Town staff already spends most of their time working on the utilities. I am awaiting precise numbers from the Town because that breakout in not included in their proposed budget. But it is clear that Mary Alice's job is budgeted to be mostly managing the utilities and to spend a small part of her time on town government issues.

Thus, even if voters rejected utility fund transfers then there would still be that job position in Oak Creek Town Hall. That job is already budgeted mostly as the utility manager with a small part time component working on government issues.

If there were deep spending cuts then the time available for government issues might have to be reduced. And thus longstanding town issues such as an overly complex and confusing land use code that, on multiple occasions, has taken a month (and a meeting) to figure out what form an applicant should fill out to request a change of land use would have to be simplified so it took less time of the town staff. Hayden and Yampa have both faced tight budgets and so, among other things, have relatively simple zoning where at least the process is clear and straightforward.

It is reasons like that which make Town Government so afraid of the voter. Budget concerns could force Town Government to be less intrusive and force it to focus on being efficient.

The so called nightmare scenario of the voters rejecting any transfers would still leave Oak Creek in a budget situation better than Town of Yampa.

And note who is going through the Town's budgets and explaining how they work? Is it Town Hall? Nope/ It is a concerned citizen. Town Hall includes a monthly newsletter and declined to mention that the upcoming budget was to get more money from taking money from the utilities than from sales and property tax combined.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 1 month ago

From the August Town Newsletter. Note the budget issues the Town Government think are worth mentioning. Newsletter does mention "must focus on providing services to the residents within the Town’s means to do so.". True enough. And how does newsletter say that will be achieved? Highlights of next year's budget is a new community funding process, seeking grants for water meters and trash rates will increase. Somehow taking more money from the utilities than property and sales tax combined was not worth mentioning??? That is how little the Town Government thinks of their citizens that tries to hid such important changes. And I learned of the plan to raid the utilities back then. I just expected Town to disclose their plans and when they never did then I went public.

The Town Board only met on July 26th this month.    They took action lifting all fire restrictions within the Town municipal limits, and the first 2013 budget work session was held.    Over the last few years, the Town Board, with the assistance of Treasurer Sandy Jacobs, has taken steps to put the Town on a more sound financial footing.   Last Thursday’s meeting saw the Town Board and staff continuing in that direction.  As property tax revenues to the Town are expected to drop by an additional 50‐60% next year paired with the slow rebound of sales tax revenues, the steps of the past and those taken now must focus on providing services to the residents within the Town’s means to do so.    Like many, the Town is going to have to tighten its belt. Highlights of the budget discussion include putting a community funding process in place so those non‐profits that seek funding from the Town can have their requests considered during the budget’s development, moving forward with the engineering needed as a first step to replacement and upgrading the Town’s water distribution system, pursing grant funding for residential water meters throughout Town, and acknowledging that the cost of trash collection will likely be rising to cover the cost of providing that service – however it is expected that Oak Creek residents will still have low, if not the lowest, trash collection rates in Routt County. One area that is getting a careful financial look is the provision of law enforcement services within the Town.   Members of the Town Board will be meeting with the Board of County Commissioners and Sheriff Wiggins in the next week to discuss issues surrounding law enforcement services within the Town and how the Town may coordinate with the County Sheriff’s office in doing so. The next meeting of the Board of Trustees is August 9 th beginning at 7:00 p.m.    All meetings are open to the public.

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maynardshort 2 years, 1 month ago

I agree with SW. He seems to be right on with his analysis of OC's lack of fiscal management. Perhaps the town of Oak Creek could raise the revenue shortfall by taxing the hell out of the many marijuana grow programs within the town.

Good for you Scott. Keep pushing for the publics voice thru the ballot.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 1 month ago

And that's the worst part of this issue. As a Democrat I feel that I am supposed to believe in open honest government that seeks voter input.

But now to have someone like Maynard with whom I could go months disagreeing with everything he says to now agree with me on this issue is just disturbing. :) Appreciated, but disturbing.

But that is what I have found when talking to people in Oak Creek. Republicans, conservatives, TEA Partiers, libertarians, independents, Democrats, liberals have almost all agree that transferring so much money that looks and feels like a tax needs voter approval.

Accessing funds without public votes is simply no way to run a government. Voter approved revenues are predictable revenues sources. Tow Board approved transfers are unpredictable. A future board could make the political decision to not transfer any money and reduce Town government. Or a future board could decide money was needed to revitalize Main St and take far more money.

Thus, regardless of a person's opinion on whether there should be money transferred and a person's opinion of how much should be transferred, it is a shared opinion that the voters need to approve of the transfers.

(And logically, Town would not seek to transfer money from the utility, but instead seek voter approval of an utility tax. And probably initially promise to lower utility rates to match the amount of the tax to make it easier for voters to pass).

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max huppert 2 years, 1 month ago

SCOTT!!!!!!!! So I went into the office today to sign but they said you filled it out wrong. I hope this is not some kind of sneaky trick by the Gov to say you now didnt turn it in on time and they are going to do what ever they want now. We need to hold them accountable. I really hope they dont think they know what is best for me!!!!

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 1 month ago

Mav, Only a temporary setback. I submitted to get a summery and the petition format was rejected without meaningful comment and without receiving the desired summary.

When I did the land use petition for downtown, I was new to the process and Town Clerk Vivian Johnson and Town Attorney helped me through the process. The first submission that time had lots of errors. That time I received the summary from Town Attorney Bob Weiss to be incorporated into the final version when all of the format was correct.

So I thought proper process was to submit a first proof, get the summary and then submit the final proof for complete approval. But Town apparently now wants final proof format before creating the summary to be put into the final proof.

So now a perfectly formatted petition will be sent to the Town for approval. To presumably receive a summary and thus be reformatted and presumably be submitted again. Oh well, I can play their games as fast as they change the rules.

And the delays won't matter much because they will pass the budget well before it can be considered in an election.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 1 month ago

Anyway, the way it works is that petitions have to be signed in the presence of a petition circulator which will be Cargo and myself and maybe a couple others. Not that many signatures are needed.

So even when approved then do not go to Town Hall to sign.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 1 month ago

I got the wage allocation data. Town Administrator's job is allocated as half town business and half utilities manager. So I was wrong above when I said it was mostly utilities. Though, point still remains that the job does not go away if there are less general fund revenues. Job priorities would be expected to be adjusted to be more utilities manager and less town business, because Town is still going to need an utilities manager and town administrator. And there is certainly additional time needed on utilities management needed.

Town is still unable to conform to PUC regulations on customer protections for operating a regulated utility and so on. Town is exempt from PUC regulations, but most municipal utilities, as a matter of principle, consider the PUC regulations as a minimum standard. Oak Creek is in the small minority of town utilities that chose to give their customers less than that minimum standard. And so many other issues. Town seems unable to find videos of the condition of their sewer lines and so ends up scoping lines multiple times. How many water shut off valves cannot easily turn off a property's water? How many water leaks have not been located?

Town Deputy Clerk is only 12% on town business and 88% on utilities. And treasurer is 30% town business and 70% utilities.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 1 month ago

Petition has been submitted for an official summary again that legally must be provided by the Town's Election Clerk. It was sent Sunday and Town's email must be slow because Town responded saying only that it was received at 4:47 pm Monday.

Oh well, makes it clear what the Town Government thinks of the local voters that the First Amendment right to petition the government is treated so poorly.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 1 month ago

Max, According to Colorado law, Town must respond in 5 business days. I count Monday through Friday as 5 business days. Still no response.

Oh well, sort of thing expected from a town government that neglect to mention that it had found a new revenue source bigger than sales and property taxes combined in town newsletter discussing "budget highlights".

Pretty funny to read that Town Board wants to educate the public on budget issues after Town made such a blatant attempt to hide the biggest budget issue in the Town newsletter. Town will "educate" based upon promoting their agenda.

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max huppert 2 years, 1 month ago

that is why they all need to go!! I still cant believe Josh and Chuck would stand for this kind of sneaky.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 1 month ago

Well, I cannot believe there are 7 public representatives that all think it is acceptable for Town government to convert the utilities into a new revenue stream that takes more than property and sales taxes combined, and do so without public meetings on the topic or without the expectation of a public vote.

I am not particularly surprised at this because town board attracts those that want to be in charge of local government and so tend to be those that believe in governments. Those skeptical of the benefits of government actions are less likely to be interested in serving on a Town Board. And this Town Board has been rather vicious to someone applying for a vacancy that didn't share their group think. Pretty bad when a town board rejects someone whom had been to more board meetings as a member of the public than themselves. And the person was bright and well mannered, but had committed the unforgivable sin of showing self thought and questioning previous board decisions.

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Scott Wedel 2 years ago

And petition was rejected again for somehow not being of the correct format even though the format is EXACTLY the same as the format in the previously approved land use changes petition.

Town is simply stonewalling by refusing to say which of the 19 specific subsections they find an issue. They just cite the entire statute. So they somehow find some detail that this time they say is an incorrect format, but refuse to say what it is.

Only thing I can see is that the warning on being a registered voter and such before signing the petition has to be ",in a form as prescribed by the clerk:" and so while the words on the petition are correct, they have yet to match the secret format that will be acceptable to the Town Clerk.

Oh well, I suppose an open records request is needed to get public disclosure of the warning format acceptable to the Town Clerk.

And so is that is what the Town Clerk thinks of citizen democracy and the First Amendment right to petition the government. Not to surprising considering her column in the August Town Newsletter on the budget highlights that failed to mention this new revenue source greater than property and sales taxes combined.

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Scott Wedel 2 years ago

Town Clerk rejected the request for the required form of the warning message.

So now the Town has put the petition in the deep freeze until the lawyer they've hired as their town attorney "finishes other business" and can be bothered to share why the petition was rejected.

Next step is consultations and deciding how long to wait before going to court to force Town to reveal its secret reasons why it rejected the petition.

Really quite instructive on the level of disdain in Town Hall for the voters of Oak Creek. Town Hall first decides that residents should not be told how they are planning on funding the 2013 budget with a new revenue stream taking more money from the utilities than property and sales taxes combined. Town Hall then decides to stonewall a petition initiative that would require voter approval of such transfers.

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max huppert 2 years ago

I say just take them to court SCOTT!!!!! or a revolution would be fun. Stock up to protect yourself from the gov.

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Scott Wedel 2 years ago

Well, I guessed I raised enough of a stink that today I got the letter from the lawyer saying what were the issues. I had missed a sentence and a couple of things that were acceptable in January were not acceptable today.

Though now they are reserving the option of saying the proposed ordinance may not be valid on the claim that such transfers of funds from the utilities are administrative actions, not Town Board decisions.

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