Voters could flush away sewer district
October 13, 2009
A district created in the 1960s could disappear by voter decision in the upcoming Nov. 3 election.
On one hand, dissolving the Fraser Sanitation District and authorizing the town of Fraser to take over its functions eliminates an extra layer of government and makes good sense, according to some town and district officials.
On the other hand, doing away with a specialized district could compromise the efficiency and undiluted operation of the utility, according to others.
It’s these variances in opinion that compelled officials to leave the final decision up to voters – the customers of the sewer district – according to Steve Sumrall who has served on both the district board and the Town of Fraser board for over and under a decade.
The Fraser Sanitation District shares the same boundaries with the Town of Fraser and originally formed out of the town’s growth, its inability to issue debt and residents’ desire to do away with septic systems. Then in the early 1970s, the Winter Park (West) Ranch Water and Sanitation District joined Fraser Sanitation in an a joint agreement and from there, sewer lagoons gave way to a more sophisticated method of treatment.
In 2001, the Grand County Water and Sanitation District No. 1 entered into a joint agreement with more plant improvements and an expansion. Grand County No. 1 taxpayers presently pay about half of plant operations, Winter Park Ranch pays roughly one-third, and Fraser Sanitation contributes around 20 percent.
Since Fraser Sanitation is geographically last in the sewage line, making it the main collector for the other two districts, it has served as the manager of the plant, tabulating flows.
Winter Park Ranch Water and Sanitation District Manager Kirk Klancke said having the town run sewer operations would translate into “better communication and management of the structure” by having a full-time manager available, he said.
Administration of the plant has always been shared among the town and Fraser district, Sumrall said.
“Throughout the history of the district, the town and the district had more than a close cooperation,” he said. The topic of dissolving the district has been thrown around for years.
Upon the district’s creation, the district administrator and the town clerk were one in the same, and district board members were also town officials. This continues today, with a district administrator doubling as a town employee. And the town’s ongoing support in sanitation district functions continues by way of record keeping, mapping, furnishing easements and holding bonds to ensure public improvements are completed.
“If the district is dependent on the town for all these different services, why do we even have a district?” Sumrall asked.
The duplication of services and equipment could be eliminated by the town absorbing the district, then cross-training town and district employees, he said. This, in turn, would make the small district less “vulnerable” by having back-up employees who are familiar with district operations.
If a dissolution were to happen, no one would lose their job, Sumrall said. The present district superintendent would become an employee of the town.
And the town would create a “Water and Wastewater Committee,” appointed by the town board to help work though water and wastewater policy development, said Fraser town manager Jeff Durbin.
But not everyone is in agreement with the premise of dissolving the district.
Why fix what’s broken? asked Fraser Sanitation District chairman Drew Matteson. The district, he said, remains a “solvent, financially sound district.”
Although the district board voted unanimously to put the dissolution on the ballot, Matteson is a board member who says, personally, he doesn’t see why Fraser residents should do away with a “self-supporting, fiscally responsible enterprise.” In his eyes, the town won’t see cost savings.
Not speaking for the district board, he stressed, utilities such as sewer and water should be run separate from a government that also deals with “development, sign codes and dog issues.”
“Clean water,” Matteson said, “doesn’t belong in politics. The town takes care of governance issues, while utilities are quietly and efficiently run without becoming bargaining chips for the political powers that be.”
Governments use districts for specific functions such as schools, fire protection, sewer and water because they are an “excellent product for a cheap bottom line, and taxpayers don’t have to worry about them being a pawn in a greater game,” Matteson continued.
But Sumrall disagrees, saying the town has proven it can run a sanitation district with its ability to run a town water system. And Matteson’s argument that dissolving the district eliminates checks and balances doesn’t wash with him.
“Then you could use that same reasoning and break off all functions of the town,” Sumrall said, “such as having a separate government for public works.”
District customer Melanie Zwick, who has been following the dissolution topic by attending district and town board meetings, agrees with Matteson, fearing that adding sewer services to the town’s responsibilities will only increase costs to consumers. And, she said, she’s concerned the district’s funds set aside for future capital improvements would not be used as intended if the town inherits those funds. It should be the other way around, she said. “Why doesn’t the town give the water to the sanitation district and have it be a water and sanitation district?”
That would mean the town would have to give up its water rights to the district, which may not be prudent on the part of town stewards, Sumrall said.
Eliminating the district would eliminate the mill levy attached to it, which amounted to $82,000 of district tax income in 2008, roughly 13 percent of the district’s total revenue.
Sumrall said he feels confident that property-tax revenue could be made up in other ways, such as savings from eliminating Fraser sanitation attorney fees as well as other areas of duplication.
District revenue from customer service fees for 2009 is budgeted at $535,000.
Matteson said no matter which direction the election sways, district customers can be assured services won’t be affected. The district is finalizing a 2010 budget, as is the Town of Fraser, in the anticipation of any outcome.
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.