Total recall: Considering politics and water rates in Westminster

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Posted 10/16/18

These are turbulent political times in America at all levels of government. The recent U.S. Senate confirmation vote of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Nominee Brett Kavanaugh is the most recent and most …

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Total recall: Considering politics and water rates in Westminster

Posted

These are turbulent political times in America at all levels of government.

The recent U.S. Senate confirmation vote of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Nominee Brett Kavanaugh is the most recent and most obvious example. The lead-up and outcome of his appointment are bound to have a detrimental impact on Republican candidates seeking seats in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives especially with women voters.

The DREAMERS Act involving children of illegal immigrant parents remains unresolved along with the whole mishandling of the Trump Administration’s separation of children from their parents at the U.S. border.

Racism and white supremacy are worse today than what they have been for decades in America. Gun violence and the shooting of innocent school children and unsuspecting people remain unchecked with the powerful NRA in control of Congress.

In Colorado, we have a testy, polarized gubernatorial race between a strong liberal and a candidate tied to President Trump where neither candidate offers us “centrists” a good choice.

Even at the local level right here in Westminster we have disagreement, mistrust and recall on the lips of some residents over the city council’s action on water and sewer rate increases for 2019 and 2020.

Recall threats over utility rate increases

Let’s address the local issue first: At their Oct. 8 meeting, the Westminster City Council approved by a 4-1 vote (Councilors Maria De Cambra and Kathryn Skulley were absent. Councilor David DeMott voted no) increases in both water and sewer rates for the next two years.

On the average, the two-year combined rates amount to a 20 percent water rate increase and a 28 percent sewer rate increase.

As I previously stated, these increases are unprecedented in Westminster city government history. The large jump in both utility rates generated a protest and mistrust from some citizens attending recent city council meetings. Threats of recall of certain council members based on their support of the rate increases were espoused by Bruce Baker and some members of the audience.

Also, there is a website which supports recall of council members except for Councilmember David DeMott.

Rates should have been increased sooner

As they say in politics, timing is everything. These utility increases should have and could have been spread over a longer time line going back some years. The current mayor, city council and city administration were saddled with this burden due to a lack of prudent fiscal planning by the previous city administration, mayor and city council.

While none of us like increased costs in our daily living, it is important to understand what is at play: The facilities of both the water and wastewater utilities have aged.

The city experienced exceptional growth in the 1970’s-1980 with a huge amount of water and sewer lines installed, along with water and wastewater treatment plants being built.

Now, 40-50 years later, these facilities have aged or deteriorated and are not reliable. Replacement of these facilities is absolutely critical to have a dependable utility system and the cost is large.

The first phase of replacements is estimated to be more than $100 million. A bond issue is planned to provide the funding. To lower the now adopted rate increases would have a DIRECT impact on the city’s ability to replace the “aged” facilities and in turn would reduce the reliability and dependability of the two systems.

We can’t have our cake and eat it too!

Mixing apples and oranges

The idea of using utility fund cash reserves to pay for the work has been bantered around by citizens. The structure for the cash reserve “rainy day funds” or savings accounts to address operation costs during unusually wet weather conditions in a given year was established while I was city manager. It is a prudent approach to utility financial management to assure funds are available in wet years to pay the operating expenses.

Water rate revenues are the only funds other than one time tap fees which are for capital improvements that utility funds have to use. Currently, the city has $14.3 million in Water Fund cash reserves for operating situations (these are not earmarked for capital improvements) and $2.2 million in the Wastewater Fund operating cash reserves.

To spend these funds on utility lines and the like would not be a smart decision and would not follow policy.

Also, there has been mention of the city imposing property taxes with the money going into the separate Water and Wastewater Funds. This is absolutely INCORRECT. Municipal water and sewer operations and capital improvements are enterprise funds and must be self-funded.

The recall process

Let’s take a look at the idea of recall of the mayor and city council members.

First, it will take approximately 4,346 valid signatures of Westminster residents to recall of each city councilor and 5,009 to recall the mayor.

Petitioners have 60 days from start to finish to garner this number of signatures once the ordinances are in effect. Call it “hard” or “easy” to do; this is the process per the City Charter.

Then a special election would be required which would cost Westminster taxpayers $150,000-$200,000 according to City staff. Each council member being recalled would stand or fall individually on how the votes turn out for each person. This is not a combined vote of “all in or all out.”

You pay for what you get

Recall of elected officials is a drastic measure. While I agree that it is the prerogative of the citizenry to seek recall when there is strong disagreement over legislative action - like we saw with state legislators over gun control measures - first let’s first ask ourselves what would be the consequences if council members and the mayor were recalled.

Replacement candidates would likely say they would lower the rates and make people content. This would be “penny wise and pound foolish.” The utility rates are justified and the replacement of utility lines and treatment plants are needed.

Do you want dependable water and sewer services which require more funding or lower rates with utility systems which are not dependable in the future? I say we need to pay for dependable, quality water and sewer systems like we have enjoyed over the past 50-plus years.

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