The city of Rifle was asked to wait a year before proceeding with plans to take out a $25.5 million loan, sharply raise water rates and seek a half-cent sales tax hike to build a new water treatment plant, during a two-hour City Council workshop on June 13.
Former Silt mayor and now Rifle resident John Steele, a vocal opponent of the city's plan for a new plant, had a lengthy discussion with the six of the seven City Council members present. Councilwoman Jennifer Sanborn was unable to attend.
Steele urged the city to repeal the ordinance that called for the rate hikes, do not close on the loan with the Colorado Water and Power Development Authority and wait a year. During that time, Steele continued, the city should reinstate a dormant water advisory board and charge them with finding a solution.
"I don't think it's asking too much or putting too much at risk to add another 12 months to the 36 months you say it's going to take to build a new plant," Steele said. "I know a new plant is in our future, but not now."
Mayor Jay Miller said Tuesday the majority of City Council does not want to step back for a year and review other options.
"We don't feel we have a year to waste," he added. "If this plant fails (before a new one is built over a three-year period), it will kill the city. It will be generations before Rifle recovers."
At the workshop, Councilman Jonathan Rice did not want to wait a year for further study.
"Financially and operationally, I'm convinced we'll be worse off in a year," he said. "This council is not comfortable with that."
Miller said he did not favor putting the question of building the new plant before voters, "Because we do not live in a democracy."
"To vote on everything the city does would take forever and isn't what our founding fathers had in mind," Miller said. "We are a representative republic, where the citizens choose their leaders to make these types of decisions."
Steele said the $25.5 million loan will cost the city $250,000 a year in interest, and a new plant will cost the city $500,000 more a year in operations and maintenance. At the same time, Steele said the city could expect a 7 percent drop in water usage and revenue due to the higher rates and current economy.
"You will be at risk of not having enough money to repay the loan," Steele said. "If you want to say I'm way too aggressive and think I'm a jerk, it's because I'm terrified at where we're headed."
Miller said Steele's pessimistic outlook was unnecessary.
"The gas companies are still around, they're still drilling," he said. "It's not at the level it was three or four years ago, but it will come back."
That will bring more people to Rifle to live and help generate money to cover the loan, he added.
Conservation measures won't work either, Steele said, "Because you have to pump water in order to repay the loan."
One resident, Lydia Rios, spoke in favor of building a new plant now.
"I'm the mother of two young children, and I think you have to remember the health of all children is important," she said. "Clean water is something we have to have. The current plant is antiquated, and the loan has a low interest rate I think the city should take advantage of. I'm willing to pay a little more because it's something we need."
Garrett Frontella of Rifle said he wanted the city to put more emphasis on a raw water irrigation system.
"I know it's now extremely costly to do something like that, but I'd still like to see more thought given to it," he said. "I like the idea of spreading the pain with a sales tax, but maybe a raw water system might have more value than a sales tax."
Rifle senior citizen and former Mayor John Scalzo asked what the city spent its water and sewer system improvement fees on and wondered if that source could help reduce the rate hikes.
City Manager John Hier said the fees allowed the city to start a water line replacement program, and that need remains.
Higher water rates will lead to more unwatered yards in Rifle, several residents said, causing more eyesores and a bad image for visitors. That, in turn, will lead to fewer customers for city businesses and less sales tax revenue for the city.
Steele said xeriscaping will not likely take hold in Rifle, due to its high cost.
"You have to take out a loan to do it, if you're talking about entire yards," he said.
Steele also claimed a 10 percent increase in water rates would mean a 4 percent drop in water demand.
"I really think that you're going to see at least a 20 percent drop because you're talking about a tiered rate structure," Steele added. "Your biggest users are going to be the ones to cut back the most."
Currently, less than 40,000 gallons out of 4 million gallons produced annually is consumed, the rest is used for irrigation, he said.
Steele and others said the city should consider asking for a sales tax higher than a half cent to help ease the burden on residents.
"I'll even help you sell it, if it makes sense," Steele said.
City Attorney Jim Neu said the City Council has until August to make a final decision on placing a sales tax hike on the November election ballot.
Councilman Keith Lambert noted the Water and Power Authority would not approve a loan with a sales tax as the only revenue source for repayment.
"That's why we need to have more water revenue," Lambert said. "I'm willing to consider a sales tax at a higher rate, though. But I'm not sure some of our business community would support it. We haven't heard from them yet."
Lambert said the city can not continue to invest money in a plant that's outlived its usefulness.
"It's like your car," he said. "You may have a car for 10 or 20 years and over time you have to replace parts to keep it running. But eventually, it's not cost effective to keep buying new parts instead of a new car. That's where we're at with the Graham Mesa plant."