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PAWSD offers fee refunds, raises rates

Nearly 200 Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District account holders could receive an additional holiday gift this season — a partial refund of the controversial Water Resource Fee.

The PAWSD board approved Tuesday night that an amount not to exceed $170,000 would be used to pay back customers who were assessed more than the most recent WRF amount calculated in February 2009.

Approximately 189 accounts were assessed more than $5,617 (the most recent WRF calculation from February 2009) for the WRF, totaling about $225,000 eligible for refund.

The $170,000 will be used to refund the customers what they paid above and beyond that amount in the order the WRF was paid, with those paying the fee in 2006 up for refunds first.

While the board will not approve more than $170,000 for refunds in 2010, Interim Manager Shellie Peterson anticipated board action in early January could allow for additional funds to complete the refunds.

Special Projects Manager Renee Lewis said Wednesday the checks are expected to be cut this month, but Peterson added that accounting firm Wall, Smith and Bateman has been contracted to verify the amounts before the refunds are sent out.

“Given what we’ve heard from attorneys on either side of the issue, we didn’t feel we had as good a basis for the higher rates,” said PAWSD Board Chair Steve Hartvigsen Wednesday.

As the board of directors continues its in-depth look at the PAWSD fee structure, additional refunds of the WRF may be considered, Hartvigsen said.

“At some point, we will have a decision as to if we retain the funds at that $5,617 level and agree as a board that it’s legal and supportable, or we divest ourselves completely of that,” Hartvigsen said.

Hartvigsen anticipated the topic might again be discussed in January after the board has looked at the fee structure. The current moratorium on the WRF expires Feb. 1.

In other PAWSD financial news, the search continues for a way for PAWSD to alleviate some of the burden of the debt incurred with the purchase of the Dry Gulch property.

At a joint meeting with the San Juan Water Conservancy District board last week, the PAWSD board asked the SJWCD to consider helping with the interest payment on the project loan, as well as to consider helping to find alternative financing and ownership options for the property and loan.

At their board meeting Monday morning, the SJWCD did just that, voting to contribute to debt interest payments in 2010 and 2011, and agreeing to the formation of a joint committee to look at options.

Although members of the SJWCD board argued at the joint meeting that the entity had fulfilled its portion of the almost $10 million loan through a $1 million grant it secured, the board seemingly changed its tune slightly Monday.

In return for additional ownership interest in the Dry Gulch Project, the SJWCD will contribute $68,680.69 in 2010 toward interest payments and $20,109.95 in 2011 — both amounts a percentage of the interest on the loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Prior to the payment contributions, the SJWCD retained 10.73 percent interest in the project. The new percentage has not yet been figured.

The board also decided to participate on a joint committee with the PAWSD board to look into financing and ownership options for the Dry Gulch Reservoir project, including looking to outside entities for help.

The PAWSD board also voted to create the joint committee at its Tuesday meeting.

The committee will comprise PAWSD Director Allan Bunch, as well as SJWCD directors Carrie Weiss, Harold Slavinksi, Diane Bower and Larry Ash.

“There’s definitely an effort to get the conservation district ... certainly as a partner in the Dry Gulch effort,” Hartvigsen said Wednesday, adding, “I applaud them for that recent decision to help us with paying interest on that loan.”

Also at the Tuesday PAWSD meeting, the board approved the district’s 2011 budget, meaning that, at least until a fee analysis by Red Oak Consulting is complete and considered, PAWSD customers will see a rate increase.

Under the rate increase, an additional $1.50 will be assessed on the minimum monthly service charge and an additional 50 cents, $1.50 and $2, respectively, will be assessed on each increased usage rate tier. The last rate increase took place in 2008.

randi@pagosasun.com