Candidates for Garfield County commissioner seats on Tuesday indicated it is not the county's job to help Rifle pay for a new water treatment plant, despite apparent local hopes for some assistance.
But they also did not dash all hopes for some help.
The Rifle Area Chamber of Commerce election forum, held Tuesday evening at City Hall, featured considerable discussion of a proposed 3/4 of a cent sales and use tax hike for city shoppers. The proposed tax would reduce, but not eliminate, the need for higher city water rates to repay $25.5 million in bonds for construction of a new water treatment plant.
Neither of the incumbent Republican commissioner candidates at the forum - John Martin for District 2 and Mike Samson for District 3 - held out much hope for help from the county's roughly $100 million in financial reserves.
"We need to make sure that it's justified," said Martin, when asked directly whether the county would help pay for the water plant.
He said the county has many responsibilities and must use its fiscal reserves to help out other governmental entities, including school districts, fire districts and special districts.
Sonja Linman, Martin's District 2 Democratic challenger, agreed.
"It's incredibly important that we are fiscally conservative," she said.
But local governments should "pay attention to more ways that you can generate development" and thereby help the city's overall fiscal health through increased revenues, she said.
Linman said the county government should be much more involved in talks with Rifle and other municipalities about such issues than it is now.
Samson, during the District 3 debate, pointed out that the current commissioners already have increased the frequency of talks with municipalities. The county has sent Rifle $1.5 million for infrastructure improvements, including aid for redevelopment of the Ute Theatre and development of an industrial park at the western edge of Rifle.
He suggested the town apply for financial help from the relatively new Federal Mineral Leasing District, which oversees disbursement of money paid into state and local coffers by the energy industry. Samson is a member of the district's board of directors.
Samson's challenger, Aleks Briedis, said flatly, "I do not believe it is the county's responsibility to be paying for the municipality's water plant." He said it is up to the city's citizens and government to cover such projects.
If the county offered to help with Rifle's water plant, he explained, it would soon face similar requests from the other towns in the county.
Earlier in the evening, City Manager John Hier and Mayor Jay Miller said the city has basically two options for repayment of the bonds - sharply raising water rates for city water customers this month and again in April, or reducing the recent rate hike and possibly eliminating the April rate hike with passage of the sales tax hike.
"I directed the staff to look under every rock to see if there wasn't a way to reduce the amount of the costs to taxpayers," said Miller, but other options did not materialize.
Hier said water bills more than doubled for some users this month, and could increase by as much as 60 percent in April under an ordinance passed by the city council earlier this year.
But the city can adjust the water rates to reflect revenues from the sale tax increase and the rates should drop, he said.
"There are some folks that object to a sales tax increase on principle, and I understand that," said Miller, arguing that some sales tax hikes are approved for nonessential government services.
"This is unique," he said. "Every citizen in Rifle uses Rifle water. The existing plant is roughly 30 years old and in danger of failure," he said.
Not all the sales tax revenues will come from Rifle citizens, Miller added.
"Every dollar that a visitor pays is a dollar that does not come out of a citizen's pocket," he said.
Also present at the forum were candidates for the Ninth Judicial District Attorney's office, Colorado House District 57, Colorado Senate District 8, and U.S. Congressional District 3.
The forum covered a broad range of topics over three and a half hours, including the proposed Amendment 64 to legalize marijuana and Proposition 1A, proposing a 10-year, quarter cent sales tax hike to fund an program to preserve agricultural lands and open space county wide.
The forum was broadcast live over Rifle Cable Channel 10, and will be rebroadcast on Oct. 8 at 5 and 8 p.m. and Oct. 9 at 6 and 10 a.m., plus other dates until election day. Check the program schedule published each week in the Citizen Telegram for exact days and times.