After another long discussion over the state of the water fund by Crawford trustees, and after a handful of constituents spoke out against the proposed increase to the water rates during a public hearing, trustees approved a modified plan last week, with the promise to keep working on making the water fund more solvent.
The original proposal on the table would have increased base rates by $5 per month; lowered gallon usage by 5,000 gallons per month in the summer for in-town accounts; doubled the cost of water available for purchase at the dispensary; and increased water and sewer tap fees.
The issue came to light after public works director Bruce Bair informed the council the town was on track to show a $16,000 deficit in the water fund by the end of 2017 if steps were not taken to address the shortfall. That large deficit is due in large part to discrepancies within the town's accounting software. When Bair was preparing the budget last fall, he discovered that there is a large difference between what the town bills out for water/sewer usage each month, and what is actually received -- in some cases, up to a $25,000 difference. For many years, at least five, he said, the staff and council have been budgeting based upon those received numbers. For instance, in a typical month, the town bills out about $6,000, or $72,000 annually. However, the software system shows that $85,000 should be received in income this year. "This isn't something that just happened overnight," Bair said. "It's been going on for years. There is a problem here. We're working on it."
Newly-seated trustee Chris Johnson asked Bair why the town's annual audits had not turned up the discrepancies before this. Bair explained that the auditors look at the Quickbooks reports and the checking accounts to make sure those numbers match -- they don't look at the software specifically to see if it's correct.
Town clerk Cally Gallegos added that she has been working for one year to try and rectify the situation. She also said that Quickbooks was never intended to do the kind of accounting needed for a municipality with multiple fund accounts. Staff is looking at possibly changing software programs, if the current system cannot be corrected.
Johnson said this issue needed to be a priority for staff; the other trustees agreed.
While the staff continues to work on this problem, the issue remains that the water account is underfunded. The proposal sought to stabilize everyday expenses and maintenance issues, while also setting aside money in the capital improvement fund.
Nearly everyone who spoke at the public hearing spoke against the full proposal. Citizen John Cunningham, who uses the town's water dispensary, suggested that dispensary users were going to take the brunt of the increase if passed. The proposal would have doubled the dispensary costs, from $1/100 gallons to $2/100 gallons. "This council is playing a little too much black jack," Cunningham said. "When you see a good deal, you double down." He said the council has already doubled the cost of water at the dispensary, and doubling it again within just a few years was unacceptable. He said the rate hike would push people to Hotchkiss to purchase water from the dispensary there. "If I go to Hotchkiss, I'm going to do my business there," he said.
Julie Kinder took issue with the across the board hike altogether. She said the council should have seen the writing on the wall with the closure of the mines and other issues that have reduced revenues in the area. "I don't think this is very responsible leadership," she said. "Why should the citizens of Crawford have to pay more because you can't look ahead or manage the budget?"
After the hearing, trustees decided to leave the dispensary fee as is -- there will be no increase in the immediate future.
Base rates were raised by $5, raising in-town users to $25.40 per month and rural and commercial users $28 per month. However, allowable gallon usage remains the same: 20,000 gallons for in town users April - September and 10,000 gallons October - March; and 10,000 gallons year round for rural and commercial users.
Tap fees were increased, from $2,500 for in-town (both water and sewer) to $3,000, and from $5,000 for out-of-town taps to $6,000. Bair noted that while tap fees were increased, there continues to be a moratorium on the sale of out-of-town taps. Trustees also approved updates to the water/sewer ordinances which clarify confusing language.
All changes go into effect on March 21.