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$41,000 – money well spent?

Was it a $41,000 boondoggle, an example of local government dropping the ball or money well spent?

That $41,000 represents the cost of a study — not counting staff time devoted to meetings and data mining for the work — that was commissioned in 2009 to determine a formula for impact fees such that all taxing entities within Archuleta County would work from a standardized formula for a “rational nexus” (i.e. the connection between the impact created and the resulting fee collected).

However, a full year after that study was completed, the study collects dust on various shelves in administrative offices throughout the county, unused and essentially ignored.

An idle study was apparently never the point. During a 2008 meeting and in response to questions raised by PAWSD representatives, Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon articulated the town’s stand in support of expediency for pursuing the study, saying, “We need this done immediately. Because of annexation agreements, we need to move forward now.”

In June 2008, representatives from Archuleta County, the Town of Pagosa Springs, PAWSD, the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD), the Pagosa Fire Protection District, Archuleta School District 50 Joint and the Upper San Juan Health Services District began meeting as the “Community Economic Roundtable” (CER).

Later that summer, representatives for the county and the town recommended using Economic Planning Systems (EPS) to research growth trends, then use those numbers to calculate appropriate fee structures. However, at that meeting, PAWSD and SJWCD expressed opposition to using EPS due to disagreements with growth projections from a 2006 study provided by EPS.

At that meeting (former PAWSD board president) Karen Wessels, speaking for PAWSD and SJWCD, articulated the two organizations’ problem with using state demographics in the proposed EPS study, saying, “Our issue is that seasonal units are not calculated in the state demographic numbers,” as well as the exclusion of Equivalent Units (EU) — a calculation of actual water used rather than previous square-footage calculations — into potential EPS projections.

The objections raised by the PAWSD and SJWCD boards were never addressed. After EPS released preliminary findings for their study in December 2009, Carrie Weiss (former PAWSD manager) directed the district’s attorney to e-mail Andy Knudson regarding nearly 20 items (including water flow delivery measurements and EU calculations) both boards felt the study had either misrepresented or had gotten wrong .

EPS never responded to that e-mail. In April 2010, Knudson denied to SUN staff that he had ever received the e-mail enumerating the PAWSD and SJWCD objections.

When EPS finally delivered its finding to the CER in late April, 2010 (almost eight months later than a previously promised deadline), the data PAWSD and SJWCD found objectionable remained in the report delivered by EPS to the participating taxing entities.

Further missteps and confusion marred the release of the long-awaited and tardy report. With the dissemination of the report, the words “draft” were contained on the cover page, raising eyebrows among many representatives from the participating taxing entities.

However, at that time, Archuleta County administrator Greg Schulte (the point of contact with EPS) assured the participating entities that “draft” was a mistake and that the report was in fact the final product.

A call by SUN staff to Knudson in late April affirmed that EPS had indeed presented its final findings and that “draft” was a misprint.

Nevertheless, another report was issued in September 2010 with the words “final report” gracing the cover page.

Whether it was a draft or final report released in April, representatives from PAWSD and SJWCD were unhappy with that report’s conclusions, predicated on alleged erroneous data that EPS had either neglected to revise or simply ignored.

In fact, the April 2010 study was not the first time the two districts had voiced opposition to EPS results. In 2005, a similar study had been commissioned (titled “Joint Impact Fee Analysis”). When the results of that study were released in 2006, both PAWSD and SJWCD rejected pertinent EPS findings, but agreed to continue participation in the town and county’s pursuit of establishing a “rational nexus” for impact fees.

What was the difference between the 2006 and 2010 studies? Apparently not much. Although the most recent study was commissioned as a recalibration of the 2006 study, much of the data used for the 2006 study was also used for the 2010 study. Furthermore, several data sets used in the 2010 report were taken from figures as far back as 2000.

Seemingly, according to the 2010 EPS report, not much had changed in Archuleta County in over four years.

What had changed was the town and county’s view of impact fees. In mid-2009, both the town and county waived 100 percent of their impact fees for new developments; in 2010, both waived 50 percent of impact fees (the town continued that 50 percent waiver in 2011).

During discussions about those impact fee waivers in July, 2009, the various districts questioned the implementation of the fee waivers. At the July, 2009 town council meeting, Wessels asked Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem what effect the fee waiver program would have on CER efforts towards establishing impact fees.

Mitchem responded that, although results of the EPS study were due in less than a month, the findings of the study would not be relevant for the next 18 months and would, most likely, after that, require another study.

As stated earlier, Mitchem’s projections were off by a good nine months (the results were not delivered in August 2009 but April 2010); nearly two years after Mitchem made that statement, the results are apparently still not relevant. Furthermore, the issue of another study has not appeared on an agenda for either a town or county board meeting.

So what has become of the study that cost nearly $41,000, as well as hundreds of hours of staff time devoted to meetings as well as providing data for generating the work?

Following the release of the EPS study, Schulte told SUN staff that a CER meeting would be convened to discuss the study’s findings and recommendations. At that time, Schulte said the taxing entities would have “a month or two” to examine the report and give the various boards time to discuss the study before calling another CER meeting.

However, that CER meeting was never convened; in fact, the CER last met in early 2010, months prior to the release of the final EPS report.

According to Pagosa Fire Protection District Chief Ron Thompson, his board brought up the issue of the EPS study, asking what had become of the more than $4,000 contribution the district had provided to pay for the study. Thompson said he e-mailed Schulte to follow up on his board’s question but that Schulte never responded.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Archuleta School District 50 Joint, the same question was raised (the district’s contribution was almost $2,000), with board president Linda Lattin saying, “It’s time to see what Mr. Schulte has to say.”

What Schulte has said amounts to very little. Earlier this year, the issue of the EPS study was raised by SUN staff during a joint town/county work session. At that time, Schulte responded that he had not given much thought to the study but would get back to SUN staff regarding the issue.

The matter was not addressed until earlier this week when SUN staff again questioned Schulte about the study.

“We do need to regroup on that,” Schulte responded, adding that an effort would be made to reconvene the CER to discuss the study’s findings.

Schulte said the reason the study had been neglected for over a year was due to the ongoing recession. “Discussions with the other members didn’t take place because it was not necessarily the most opportune time given the economic conditions at the time.”

When asked how those economic conditions were different than during the previous two years, Schulte conceded that little had changed.

What had changed, apparently, had been the town and county’s stomach for approaching the issue of impact fees. After waiving those fees entirely in 2009, then waiving half that amount the following year, neither the town nor the county appeared enthused with approaching renewed discussions regarding impact fees.

Nevertheless, taxing entities that had entered into a financial partnership with the town and county took a different view, wondering what had happened to the money they spent and the study they paid for.

It may be some time before any of their questions are answered. However, those questions raise a bigger question as far as paid consultants and other studies: how many other studies reside on administrative shelves, lost to memory, unused and forgotten?

Again, it may be a long time before that question is answered.

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