Funds needed for projects
Gunnison and Hinsdale County taxpayers won’t likely be getting a tax break in 2008 from the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD). During a regular meeting on Monday, November 26 the UGRWCD board voted six to four to keep the existing mil levy on property values to protect the basin’s water.
Board members have a few more weeks to reconsider, but the UGRWCD budget must be finalized during the next meeting in December.
During a UGRWCD meeting in October, board members considered dropping the mil levy in response to a large jump in property values, thereby keeping the tax burden on the public level. Board members in favor of dropping the mil levy said the district currently has plenty of funds in reserve and the taxpayers were in need of a break.
Board members against changing the mil levy argued that protecting the basin’s water is of the utmost importance, and a healthy reserve will ensure that the district has enough money to survive costly court battles that may arise when outside interests seek to take water from the Gunnison Basin.
At the start of the November meeting, UGRWCD board president Brett Redden said the meeting’s objective was to get a consensus on the budget, although it will not be adopted until the December 10 meeting. A public hearing was held before the board’s budget discussion.
During the public hearing, Lake City town manager Michelle Pierce said, "The thought of decreasing revenues makes me shiver." Pierce said she has not heard of any opposition from her town’s residents to keeping the existing mil levy, and said the district’s tax was relatively small compared to other taxes. "Personally I don’t think it would be wise, especially in lack of protest, to not get money you will need in the future," she said.
Hinsdale County commissioner Alan Brown agreed the current mil levy should be kept at its current level. "The potential for further litigation seems inevitable," Brown said.
He also said Hinsdale County was interested in partnering with the district to fund a waterworks project at Lake San Cristobal and "having funds for projects like that is important." Furthermore, Brown said Hinsdale County lowered its mil levy once for the same reason the district is considering and, "It took substantial effort to get it back up when needed."
Hinsdale County commissioner Flynn Mangum sent a letter to the district also urging to keep the mil levy. "The voters of this county supported a mil levy increase to provide the district sufficient funds to defend and develop this basin’s waters… The increased revenue is not the result of any action the (district board) has taken and can just as easily decrease with a drop in property values," Mangum wrote.
Gunnison resident Ralph Clark also wrote a letter in support of keeping the mil levy. Citing recent reports and forecasts of prolonged drought in many parts of the Southwest, Clark wrote, "… water originating within the headwaters of this basin will continue to be sought by those elsewhere."
State representative Kathleen Curry asked if there was a target amount the district wanted to keep in its reserve funds before lowering the mil levy, and asked what the extra funds would be used for.
Board member Ralph Grover said some of the money would be used for the Lake San Cristobal Project—a project to construct an outflow regulator to manage the level of lake water in hopes to use the water for augmentation purposes. Grover said the district may be asked to act as the banker for the project in 2009 and would be handling at least $1 million.
Grover said the cost of the project and ownership of the water would be split evenly between the district, Hinsdale County and the town of Lake City.
A $250,000 line item expense is included in the district’s budget, which Grover says will be used on engineering studies.
Board member Gary Hausler said he was in support of the project, but didn’t believe it was mature enough to warrant hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenue each year.
Hausler said it was the district’s responsibility to give a break to taxpayers. "This is not our money," Hausler said. He said there is a maximum tax burden most people are willing to bear, and there are other entities in the valley that could use a share of tax revenues. "I think we owe that to the taxpayers," he said.
Grover said he appreciated Hausler’s concern, but said that it was a short-range outlook. Grover said he agrees with the district attorney John McClow, who said if the mil levy is dropped it could take six years to raise again. "What’s our mission—in 100 years this valley has to have water, period. It is our job. In 18 months we may have a need for these funds and if we give them up now they’re gone forever," he said.
Board member Steve Schechter agreed with Grover. "I’m totally opposed to dropping the mil levy. There are too many storm clouds out there. We have water that people on the Front Range want. If we have big legal bills we could see everything disappear," Schechter said.
Grover said there will be other chances to reconsider the mil levy in the future. "I think this is just the beginning of the discussion. I’m uncomfortable changing revenue streams until we understand it from a mature standpoint," he said. Board member George Sibley agreed.
Grover moved to prepare a revised budget for the December meeting keeping the current 2.0 mil levy. The board voted six to four to keep the mil, with board members Redden, Rebie Hazard, Hausler and Spann dissenting. Board member Dennis Steckel was absent from the meeting.
Aside from the mil levy discussion, several new line items were added to the district’s budget.
Board member Steve Glazer said the Whitewater Park in Gunnison needs an organizer to create events and possibly bring a whitewater festival to town. He said the city of Gunnison and Gunnison County were willing to partner in funding the position.
Drexel agreed. "It’s definitely needed," he said of the position. The board agreed to contribute up to $10,000 to fund a whitewater festival coordinator position, but the cost may be split eventually.
The board also agreed to contribute $5,000 to a scientific snow pack study in Silverton, Colo. that has far-reaching implications, as well as $2,000 to bring the lead scientist to the Gunnison Basin for consultation on the local snow conditions.
Glazer said the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition was asking for a $5,000 donation to continue funding monitoring studies on Coal Creek, a waterway that flows through the town of Crested Butte. Grover said a similar organization for the Lake Fork Watershed Stakeholders was also seeking funding to continue their water monitoring work.
Redden said making a preferential line item for just one of the organizations "could open up a can of worms." He suggested a line item for "watershed stakeholder support," for which both parties can apply to receive a donation. The board agreed on budgeting $5,000 for watershed stakeholder support.
The UGRWCD board will give final approval of the 2008 budget during a regular meeting on December 10.