Year in review continues: April through October

April

Emergency Notification. Archuleta County further enhanced its emergency preparedness tool kit when the Board of County Commissioners approved a contract triggering implementation of a emergency notification program.

According to Archuleta County Undersheriff John Weiss, the emergency notification system enables the sheriff’s department to contact residents across the county, or just in targeted areas, in the event of an emergency situation such as flood, fire or other natural disaster. Weiss said the system could also be used to notify residents of safety concerns, or to provide instructions or other information during a law enforcement situation.

Bank robbery. A lone gunman entered First Southwest Bank at 7th and San Juan streets in downtown Pagosa Springs at approximately 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 1, and robbed the bank of an estimated $2,000 ($20, $50 and $100 bills). No one was hurt during the robbery. The alleged gunman escaped the scene but was apprehended, with an accomplice, on April 4 in New Mexico. Each suspect faced a number of federal charges.

Town election. Pagosa Springs voters said good-bye to two of three incumbents in an election to select members of the Town Council.

In the six-way contest for council seats, the big winner was longtime Pagosa Springs resident Shari Pierce with 122 votes (61.6 percent), followed closely by former council member Jerry Jackson, who took 115 votes (58 percent). Incumbent Stan Holt held his council seat with 98 votes (49.5 percent). According to election officials, there were 912 registered electors in the Town of Pagosa Springs — 198 turned out to vote.

Manager resigns. After 13 years serving in various capacities with the Town of Pagosa Springs, Town Manager Mark Garcia resigned following an executive session of the town council scheduled to review and evaluate Garcia’s performance. Following the performance review, Garcia immediately tendered his resignation to council.

Garcia served as manager for five years. With a background as administrator for the town building department and engineer for the town’s geothermal facility, Garcia was known for his interest and knowledge in the technical details of the various capital improvement projects that passed through his office.

May

County finances. County administrative staff provided a first-quarter financial report, and the analysis indicated a horizon dotted with a handful of seemingly surmountable financial glitches, coupled with a plan to rectify negative fund balance problems that had dogged the ledgers for more than a year.

According to Greg Schulte, revenues and expenditures were generally in line with projections and the county had the financial wherewithal to deal with the funding issues currently on the radar.

In short, “We’re doing ok,” Schulte wrote in the report.

The county had projected sales tax revenues would increase by 2 percent from 2007, and Schulte said collections appeared on track.

According to Archuleta County Finance Director Don Warn, $1.7 million was budgeted for sales tax collections in 2008, and the county had collected $403,000 or 24 percent of that amount as of March 31 — the end of the first quarter.

In the report, overall revenues were listed at $15.6 million, and first quarter figures showed $5.3 million or 34 percent had been collected as of March 31.

High school program. The Charles J. Hughes foundation awarded its largest grant to date — $250,000 — to the Pagosa Springs High School, to aid in the construction of the new Pirate Achievement Center (PAC).

The PAC is a new program designed to help local students who “are having marginal or no success in the traditional high school setting.” The PAC uses non-traditional teaching methods such as job shadowing and social-emotional training, and includes a more flexible curriculum. The program also places a strong emphasis on outdoor education.

CEO resigns. Just shy of four months in business, Pagosa Mountain Hospital was again without a chief executive officer. Upper San Juan Health Service District (USJHSD) board chair Neal Townsend informed The SUN that hospital CEO Daniel Boatman resigned his post amid what Boatman described as difficult personal problems.

Boatman’s departure left Pagosa Mountain Hospital without an official administrator of day-to-day operations. As a result, the health district board of directors immediately searched for an interim CEO to fill in, until another lengthy advertising and interview campaign ultimately yields a full-time hire.

Town wastewater plant. It was announced construction on a new wastewater treatment plant for the Town of Pagosa Springs would likely not begin until spring 2009. Contrary to previous projections that put groundbreaking at October 2008, the design’s engineering specifications were not scheduled for completion until at least late November or early December.

More finances. The BoCC approved an interfund loan and transfer plan that would eliminate one of the county’s most vexing financial problems and bring the organization into compliance with state statute.

The plan, represented in a series of six resolutions, called for the transfer of funds from the General Fund and other county funds to the Treasurer’s Ledger Fleet and Nutrition funds, and loans from the Road Capital Improvement Fund to a variety of county funds, in order to eliminate current negative fund balances as shown on the treasurer’s ledger.

According to county staff and auditors, carrying negative fund balances on the county ledgers is a violation of state statute and the county had been out of compliance with the regulations for more than a year. Moreover, forensic auditors with Clifton Gunderson LLP, and auditors with Wall, Smith, Bateman and Associates said that beyond the county’s legal obligations, rectifying the negative fund balance problem was crucial to ensuring adherence to proper accounting procedures and solvency in the future.

Permanent administrator hired. The Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners named Greg Schulte the county’s new, full-time, permanent administrator. Schulte was in the running as one of two finalists when the other candidate, Bonnie Hammersley, from Sun Prairie, Wis., withdrew her application.

Schulte had served as interim administrator since January 2008.

June

Village lawsuit settled. The developers of the Village at Wolf Creek and Wolf Creek Ski Area owners settled a lawsuit, closing a four-year-old court case regarding the development of the controversial resort. U.S. District Judge John Kane dismissed the case Tuesday, and the settlement terms remained secret.

“All terms of the settlement are totally confidential under contractual obligations,” said developer Bob Honts, “But we have amicably resolved all previous differences between the Wolf Creek Ski Area and the village. And that’s all I can say.” The lawsuit stemmed from a dispute between the developers and the ski area owners. McCombs, who was once a business partner of ski area owner Kingsbury Pitcher, claimed the Pitcher family had backed out of an agreement to lengthen a road from the ski area’s parking lot into the area where the resort was to be built.

The Pitcher family sued to assert that they were under no legal obligations to assist in the development of the village. Honts and McCombs then countersued the Pitchers for fraud and breach of contract. With the settlement, the trial scheduled for July 7 was cancelled.

County road plan. Residents with road rage lobbied the board of county commissioners and although the board ultimately approved a road capital improvement plan for 2008, the project list left some attendees pleased and others chagrined.

On that proposed funding list were resurfacing projects slated for County Road 975, Park Avenue and Holiday Avenue, in addition to $50,000 committed via contract to intersection design work at North Pagosa Boulevard.

Auditor’s report. An auditor’s report delivered to the BoCC provided further indication that fraud or other criminal activity may not have played a role in the county’s financial unraveling, although a district attorney’s investigation continued.

After analyzing a series of questionable wire transfers and vendor payments, Karla Willschau of the Alamosa-based auditing firm Wall, Smith, Bateman & Associates, Inc., said, “I think the bottom line is that the wire transfers look like good, valid wire transfers, and the vendor payments look good.”

July

Sheriff’s department civil suit. A civil suit filed in May against top brass in the county sheriff’s department began working its way through the courts early in July.

The proceedings were billed as a pre-trial conference and followed plaintiff Galen Erin’s filing of a suit against Archuleta County Sheriff Pete Gonzalez and Archuleta County Undersheriff John Weiss.

Erin was the chairperson of a committee intent on ousting Gonzalez with a recall election, and in the suit Erin alleged that Gonzalez and Weiss engaged in libel and defamation of character by communicating and publishing false statements intended to damage Erin’s personal and professional reputation and her reputation as a member of the sheriff’s recall committee. In addition, Erin alleged Gonzalez and Weiss were guilty of misdemeanor violations related to elections. Specifically, Erin alleged the sheriff’s comments quoted in an on-line article were designed to impede the gathering of petition signatures for the recall effort.

Treasurer Lois Baker resigns. Burdened with misdemeanor charges stemming from allegations she violated state statute while serving as one of the county’s chief financial managers, Archuleta County Treasurer Lois Baker resigned before Judge Jim Denvir July 2.

During the proceedings, Baker tendered her written resignation in conjunction with a “no contest” plea to the misdemeanor charges, in addition to paying a $50 fine and court costs.

According to court documents, Baker was charged with failure to keep funds separate per Colorado Revised Statute (C.R.S.) 30-10-710, and with transferring funds without Board of County Commissioners’ approval, a violation of C.R.S. 30-10-707 — the alleged offenses occurring during 2006.

The charges and Baker’s resignation stemmed from an ongoing district attorney’s investigation into the individuals and financial management practices that may have contributed to the county’s financial meltdown in April 2007.

Lewis Street delayed. Two years behind schedule and as much as $250,000 over budget, the Lewis Street renewal project was finally scheduled to break ground July 14.

Of the three lowest bidders on the project, NORAA Concrete and Construction was awarded the contract with a bid of $1,082,380 — about a quarter million dollars more than the town had initially allocated for the project in the 2008 budget. The initial project estimate was $750,000. The original NORAA bid was $1,219,093, but that amount was renegotiated.

Town construction manager Tory Hessman said most of the budget overruns were due to the increased costs of materials.

County finances. According to an Archuleta County finance report, although dollars remained tight, the county was keeping its financial head above water and may, for the first time in four years, met its state mandated audit deadline. Despite the good news, key revenue streams such as sales tax collections and building permit fees were down.

$1 million shortfall. Later in the month, county staff announced a revenue shortfall of more than $1 million, and the news came just as many in the organization thought the worst of the county’s financial troubles were behind them.

According to Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte, the shortfall was likely caused by an error on a line item titled “Miscellaneous Revenue,” in the clerk’s 2008 budget.

Although the shortfall, coupled with downturns in building permit revenue, questions about the strength of summer sales tax collections and other budgetary constraints, would make the remainder of 2008 financially challenging, Schulte said the problem was surmountable.

Home rule gains ballot. A grassroots effort to change Archuleta County government marked a major milestone July 14, when Archuleta County Clerk June Madrid announced the local Home Rule movement had mounted a successful petition drive and earned a slot on the general election ballot.

According to clerk’s documents, the Home Rule petition needed 435 signatures, although volunteers exceeded the benchmark by gathering 627.

Board votes “no confidence.” The Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners cast a vote of “no confidence” on the local water districts’ Dry Gulch Reservoir plans.

“I would like the PAWSD (Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District) board to know that going beyond the 12,500 acre-feet is unnecessary,” Archuleta County Commissioner Ronnie Zaday said.

The reservoir was slated to hold between 12,500 and 35,000 acre feet of water, and the scope, scale and cost of the larger reservoir drew commissioner concern.

Although the resolution, which passed unanimously, carried no legislative weight, it clearly defined the board’s comfort zone and level of support relative to the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District’s (PAWSD) plans.

Karen Wessels, PAWSD board chair, urged the commissioners to reconsider passing the resolution.

“I think being fixed on the 12,500 acre-foot reservoir is premature and inappropriate. We need another 10 years of data to appropriately size the reservoir,” Wessels said.

Board appoints Kelly Evans. During a special meeting of the Board of County Commissioners, the board unanimously named Deputy Treasurer Kelly Evans (R) interim treasurer until voters chose a new county treasurer in the 2008 general election.

Evans’ appointment came following the resignation of Archuleta County Treasurer Lois Baker.

River restoration stalemate. The town’s river restoration project remains stalled, with no indication when it might proceed.

August

$1 million shortfall surmountable. Although the July 21 announcement of a $1 million revenue shortfall in the county’s 2008 budget revived the spectre of last year’s financial crisis, finance director Don Warn said the county could overcome the challenge and he began meetings with department heads and elected officials to find ways to bridge the revenue gap.

Nevertheless, with sales tax collections less than robust and building permit revenues down, the error threatened to strain county coffers.

According to projections, the shortfall loomed at nearly $1.3 million, but Warn said the figure would likely come in much less.

Sheriff recall tanks. A group intent on ousting Archuleta County Sheriff Pete Gonzalez via recall election missed a key procedural deadline, thus tanking their most recent recall effort and forcing them, if they chose to persist, to start the petition process from scratch.

Archuleta County Clerk June Madrid said the deadline to submit the recall petition was Aug. 5, but due to a clerk’s office document dating error, Madrid gave the recall committee until 4 p.m. Aug. 7 to gather 903 signatures and submit paperwork to her office.

Madrid said the recall committee, comprised of Galen Erin, Homer (Mack) Trout and Charles Michael Thomas, had neither called nor provided her or staff with an update on the number of signatures gathered.

Erin was also embroiled in a civil suit against Gonzalez and Archuleta County Undersheriff John Weiss.

Madrid said the missed Aug. 7 deadline marked the committee’s fourth unsuccessful attempt to recall Gonzalez.

Village at Wolf Creek. Environmental groups and others opposed to development adjacent to Wolf Creek Ski Area prepared for another battle, after the U.S. Forest Service announced it had accepted an application for road construction and property access from Village at Wolf Creek developers.

The new application and initiation of a new environmental analysis process were the result of a legal settlement involving Colorado Wild, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, the Forest Service and village developers — Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture. The groups sued the Forest Service in October 2006, challenging the agency’s decision to authorize construction of two access roads across public land for the purpose of building a 10,000 person village adjacent to Wolf Creek Ski Area.

In the suit, the groups said the environmental impact statement (EIS) authorizing the roads was fundamentally flawed because it focused almost exclusively on the impact of the access roads and not the village as a whole. In the settlement, the Forest Service and developers agreed to undertake a fresh EIS, hence the new application submittal.

However, the Forest Service’s acceptance of the application initiated a nearly identical process begun years ago — a process which ultimately led to litigation and allegations of improprieties and collusion between the developer, federal and local government officials.

But staff at the Forest Service and the developer’s new front man, Hal Jones, of Hal Jones Development LLC, said submittal of the access and road construction application is where the similarities end, and this time, the developer and the Forest Service pledged to do things differently.

Primary election decided. Archuleta County Republican voters denied a sitting commissioner a shot at another term during the primary election.

According to Archuleta County Clerk June Madrid, unofficial results in the District 1 Republican county commissioner’s race showed John Ranson with a landslide victory — 964 votes, or 67 percent of the total votes cast.

Ranson defeated former commissioner Gene Crabtree who trailed with 367 votes — 25.5 percent — and incumbent Archuleta County Commissioner Robin Schiro who gathered 107 votes — or 7.4 percent.

Pagosa — “Best place to live and play.” National Geographic Adventure magazine named Pagosa Springs one of the 50 next great adventure towns in which to live and play.

Pagosa Springs and other towns named were featured in the magazine’s September issue.

GOP picks treasurer candidate. The Archuleta County Republican Party announced Betty Diller as their general election candidate for treasurer.

Diller was selected from a field of four candidates, including: interim treasurer Kelly Evans, Citizen’s Financial Advisory Task Force member Larry Allen, and former county finance department accountant Laura Morris.

With Diller named, interim treasurer Evans announced she had filed the necessary paperwork to mount a write-in campaign.

Diller’s selection and Evans’ write-in bid were the products of former treasurer Lois Baker’s July resignation.

Civil suit dismissed. A civil suit against Archuleta County Sheriff Pete Gonzalez was dismissed with prejudice Aug. 8, according to documents filed in Archuleta County Court.

The dismissal meant the claimant, sheriff’s recall committee chairperson Galen Erin, was barred from filing another case on the claim. The dismissal was the result of negotiations between Gonzalez’s and Erin’s attorneys.

Erin filed the suit May 2, 2008, and named Gonzalez and Archuleta County Undersheriff John Weiss in their professional and personal capacities, and Archuleta County, as defendants. In the suit, Erin alleged Gonzalez and Weiss engaged in libel and defamation of character when Gonzalez’s comments about Erin and the recall effort appeared in a local on-line magazine.

Incredible shrinking revenue shortfall.

County staff announced a $1 million revenue shortfall identified in July was whittled down to less than $200,000.

Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte said the projections used to bring the shortfall down to less than $200,000 were based on meetings with department heads and an intense, line-by-line analysis of the 2008 general fund budget.

Home Rule effort crashes. A missed deadline, followed by procedural snafus and the disqualification of six charter commission candidates, tanked a grassroots effort to establish Home Rule government in Archuleta County.

According to Archuleta County Clerk June Madrid, statute required an 11-member charter commission — three from each of the three commissioner districts, plus two at large — and those commissioners must secure a slot on the ballot by petition.

A flurry of e-mail banter and phone calls erupted after the disqualifications, with some Home Rule supporters asserting the election should continue despite the candidate shortage, (whoever was elected would appoint the remaining members, they argued), while Madrid and Archuleta County Attorney Teresa Williams asserted statute requires at least 11 candidates distributed appropriately by district for the election to continue. Hence, their argument went, without the requisite number of charter commission candidates, there would be no election.

In mid-May, Home Rule proponents marked their first milestone when Madrid approved a petition that, if successfully completed, would bring the Home Rule question to the fore, inching it closer to accessing the general election ballot.

By mid July, Home Rule proponents had gathered more than the requisite signatures — 627 when they needed 435 — and the question of whether to form a charter commission appeared destined for the general election ballot.

The next step required Home Rule proponents to field sufficient candidates such that a viable charter commission election could be held.

September

Commissioners kill Home Rule. A commissioner resolution killed the Home Rule effort, and it remained unclear if the movement might be successfully resurrected during a special election next year.

In order to access the ballot again, Home Rule organizers were told they would have to either mount another successful petition campaign, or convince the board of county commissioners to bring it to the fore themselves.

How to spend 1A money. The Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners took public comment on how to allocate more than $1 million in Ballot Issue 1A revenue projected to come in for 2009.

According to Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte and finance director Don Warn, 2009 Ballot Issue 1A collections are estimated at $1.18 million, and the board faced two key decisions.

First, the board asked whether money leftover from 2008 should be “rolled over” into the same spending categories designated in the commissioners’ 2006 “Letter of Commitment.” Second, into what spending categories, and at what percentages should the $1.18 million in 1A dollars for 2009 be allocated?

Postal service pleas. Two area residents pleaded guilty to federal charges stemming from separate cases of embezzlement at the Pagosa Springs Post Office, according to a representative of the U.S. Postal Service Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

In the first case, Leah Dains pleaded guilty to misappropriation of postal funds. The case resulted from an audit performed by the OIG due to a shortage of funds at the Pagosa Springs Post Office between April 2006 and November 2007. Dains was sentenced in federal court in August to one year of probation, 75 hours community service, $500 restitution and a $500 fine. She resigned her position at the post office last February.

Also in August, Linda L. Peterson pleaded guilty in federal court to two charges stemming from an OIG investigation of embezzlement at the Pagosa Springs post office.

Results of the investigation alleged that Peterson embezzled funds from American Postal Workers Union (APWU) accounts and then used Postal Service funds to replace money taken from the APWU accounts. At the time, Peterson was in charge of bulk mailing accounts and it was from those accounts that the OIG alleges Peterson used funds to replace the money embezzled from the APWU.

Town searches for manager.

The Pagosa Springs Town Council continued its search for a town manager after the council’s first choice, Todd Parton, withdrew his name from the running.

2009 1A spending set. The board of county commissioners made two key financial decisions that set the tone for spending $1.18 million in Ballot Issue 1A revenue in 2009.

In a split vote, the board agreed to roll over 1A funds. Thus, any dollars left over from 2008 would go back into the same spending categories — road maintenance, parks and recreation, technology and training, and architectural plans and the planning process associated with building a new jail and sheriff’s facilities — in 2009.

As a second order of business, the board agreed, by majority opinion, to reallocate 1A dollars, by percentage, into the following categories for 2009: 60 percent for roads, 10 percent for technology and training, 15 percent for parks and recreation and 15 percent for facilities.

County dump burns. Firefighters battled a blaze at the Archuleta County landfill. Although incident commanders said the fire was contained, topographical challenges made fire fighting difficult and noxious smoke forced closure of the facility.

Nuisance ordinance passed. In a split vote, the board of county commissioners approved an ordinance that will prohibit trash, abandoned vehicles and other nuisances on private property within Archuleta County.

Court shrinks Dry Gulch. Judge Gregory G. Lyman of District Court, Water Division 7, State of Colorado, decreed water and storage rights to two local water districts sufficient to accommodate a future Dry Gulch Reservoir of a maximum 25,300 acre feet in size. The decree includes maximum fill and refill diversions from the San Juan River of 150 cubic feet per second (cfs).

In effect, the decree reduced the judge’s earlier ruling that would have allowed a maximum impoundment of 35,300 acre feet two miles northeast of town, with fill and refill diversions from the San Juan River totaling 180 cfs. In late 2006, Trout Unlimited (TU) appealed that decision to the Colorado Supreme Court, which reversed Lyman’s findings and remanded the case back to him for reevaluation of the districts’ future water needs.