2008 year in review: October through December

October

River project moves ahead. After months of debate and deadlock regarding a proposed river restoration project, town council members anticipated a new and revised plan for whitewater features in the San Juan River.

Previous iterations of the river restoration project were developed by the Boulder, Colo., firm Recreation Engineering and Planning (REP). Contracted in 2004 to design and build structures in the San Juan River for the town, REP recently fell out of favor with the town due to cost overruns and construction of structures that violated permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE).

County receives PILT windfall. County staff learned a rider in the federal bailout package adopted Oct. 3 should restore full funding to the Secure Rural Schools program and — most importantly to Archuleta County and other counties with vast tracts of federally owned land — the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program.

With H.R. 1424’s passage, Washington guaranteed full PILT funding through fiscal year 2012, including a “make-up” payment to Colorado counties for a shortfall in 2008.

With the legislation, Archuleta County staff were told they will receive about $325,121 as a “make up” payment for 2008, and $860,109 in PILT funding each year through 2012.

Geothermal water lease proposed. The Pagosa Springs Town Council explored a proposed lease of geothermal water, effluent from the town geothermal system, to the Springs Resort. With details of the draft lease agreement presented at a council meeting, citizens speaking before the board voiced concerns regarding the amount of water at stake, the length of time, and what the town would charge for the water.

Although not a 50-year lease (which would violate the Town Charter), the draft agreement offers multiple 10-year leases to the Springs Resort as well as stipulations for lease renewals. The agreement would give the Springs Resort 400 gallons per minute (GPM) after the water’s use in the town system.

Airport taxiway nears completion. Contractors finished paving the taxiway, which connected the north end of the airport runway with a mid-field apron adjacent to Fixed Base Operations (FBO).

As part of the same project, workers also finished a two-mile long interior road.

County remains solvent. County staff reported Archuleta County’s coffers weathered the third quarter relatively well, despite downturns in building permit revenue and sales tax collections.

According to Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte, total building permits for 2008 were “the lowest in recent memory,” with just 53 percent, or $158,000 collected, of the $300,000 budgeted for 2008. Based on the numbers, Schulte anticipated a $100,000 shortfall in building permit revenue by year’s end.

Sales tax, said Schulte, was also down 1.7 percent from the adopted 2008 budget, although he added that collections are up 0.3 percent from 2007.

Village at Wolf Creek. Developer plans for the Village at Wolf Creek were notably absent during a Forest Service-sponsored open house held in Pagosa Springs Oct. 9, and the omission of key project details left many attendees wondering what to expect next.

A Village representative said he is interested in creating a drastically different project than the 10,000-person village originally slated for construction adjacent to the Wolf Creek Ski Area.

The Oct. 9 open house was part of a newly-launched public scoping and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process triggered by an application submitted by village developers Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture. With the application, the development firm was again seeking transportation and utility corridors across National Forest System lands to their private property.

Although the open house-style event was intended to educate the public on the EIS’s scope, content and process — not to showcase the developer’s plans — Forest Service officials have said they intend to assess the impact of the village as a whole, thus, understanding the village’s scope and scale at full build-out plays a significant role in the new EIS scoping process.

Westberg plea. A little over a year after being arrested on suspicion of careless driving and driving under the influence of a controlled substance, District Attorney Craig Westberg pleaded guilty in a La Plata County courtroom.

The plea, entered just moments before the matter was set for trial, caused revocation of Westberg’s driver’s license and could ultimately result in jail time.

According to the plea agreement, charges of careless driving and failing to report an accident were dropped in exchange for Westberg’s DUI guilty plea. The court documents stated the conviction was deferred, meaning the conviction will be wiped from the record after 18 months if Westberg stays out of trouble.

Westberg was arrested at his Durango home Oct. 10, 2007, under suspicion of driving under the influence and careless driving, after witnesses reported he struck two stationary objects with his vehicle. Westberg told authorities he had been feeling ill and had taken four Ambien sleeping pills before driving, thinking he could run an errand to town before the pills took effect.

Town projects scrapped. Two capital improvement projects in Pagosa Springs — the Riverwalk Extension Phase II project and the Hermosa Street Pedestrian bridge project — were scrapped, one for an indeterminate amount of time, the other, perhaps permanently.

Both projects would have created a nexus to a disparate complex known locally and colloquially as “the trail to nowhere.” Now, with both plans cut by the broad knife of budgetary constraints and the town’s inability to secure necessary easements, the trails would, for a time, continue their meandering disconnect.

Dry Gulch challenged. Last month, two local water districts accepted the latest court-decreed Dry Gulch water rights as a reasonable compromise to developing additional raw water storage for portions of Archuleta County.

In October, they were waiting for another Colorado Supreme Court decision based on a second Trout Unlimited (TU) appeal.

On the final day of a 45-day appeal period, TU issued a Notice of Appeal to the state’s highest court, effectively challenging a Sept. 11, 2008 ruling by Judge Gregory G. Lyman of District Court, Water Division 7. Lyman’s ruling awarded the districts water rights sufficient to accommodate a future Dry Gulch Reservoir of a maximum 25,300 acre feet in size, and included San Juan River fill and refill diversions equaling 150 cubic feet per second (cfs).

County property taxes frozen. Another missed audit deadline meant the state froze Archuleta County’s property tax revenues for the fifth consecutive year, yet county finance director Don Warn said this year’s situation was markedly different than audit problems experienced in the past.

According to documents from the Office of the State Auditor, the property tax freeze was imposed Oct. 22 after the county failed to provide the 2007 audit by the Sept. 30 deadline.

Warn said the auditing firm just finished the 2006 audit in March (2008) and with their late completion of the 2006 audit, the firm was delayed in meeting obligations to other clients, which pushed back completion dates for those projects, which ultimately pushed back the date Wall, Smith, Bateman & Associates could return to Archuleta County to conduct the 2007 audit. In fact, during the 2006 audit presentation in February 2008, Karla Willschau of Wall, Smith, Bateman & Associates warned that her firm would have difficulty returning to Archuleta County for the 2007 audit much before late 2008.

November

General election. Local voters went to the polls in large numbers Nov. 4, deciding on four key local government candidates and one taxation issue, and Archuleta County Clerk June Madrid reported a 72 percent voter turnout.

According to Madrid, the tally showed decisive victories for Republican District 1 county commissioner candidate John Ranson, and Democratic District 2 candidate Clifford Lucero.

In the treasurer’s race, Republican Betty Diller took the seat with a 430-vote margin. However, due to alleged inconsistencies and aberrations in the collecting and counting of votes, write-in challenger Kelly Evans said she was not ready to concede defeat.

Evans alleged that about 1,000 absentee ballots had gone initially uncounted, and Madrid’s reporting during election night appeared inaccurate compared to the actual number of absentee ballots cast.

In addition, Evans alleged that a number of votes cast as write-ins were disqualified, and she wanted to know how many of those exist and the reason for the disqualification.

Furthermore, Evans alleged a “big gap” between total voter turnout in the treasurer’s race as compared to the district attorney or commissioner races. The gap, Evans said, led her to believe many votes were not counted.

Then, there were statutory questions, such as whether a misspelling of Evans’ name constitutes grounds for disqualifying the vote, or whether the vote, despite the misspelling, clearly shows “demonstrated intent.”

Evans’ asks for recount. Write-in candidate for Archuleta County Treasurer, Kelly Evans, requested a formal recount of Nov. 4 election ballots and submitted the required funds to the county clerk to launch the effort.

Evans lost the treasurer’s race to Republican challenger Betty Diller by a 430 vote margin — Diller’s 2,725 votes to Evans’ 2,295 — although Evans said she thinks the margin is narrow enough that the presence of 1,280 suspect ballots may tip the scales to her favor.

Town grapples with geothermal leases. Issues regarding a proposed lease on the town’s geothermal effluent discharge dominated discussion at the Oct. 5 meeting of the Pagosa Springs Town Council.

The town was considering a series of 10-year leases set up to accommodate the Springs Resort’s need for additional geothermal resources for a proposed $250 million expansion. Although subject to ongoing negotiations between attorneys representing The Springs Resort and the town, the lease would grant 400 gallons per minute (GPM) of effluent discharge from two town wells, leaving the town with about 50 GPM.

In an 11th-hour letter from BootJack Management to the council, David Smith (representing BootJack) requested a lease, with the same terms outlined in the proposed Springs Resort lease agreement, for 100 GPM from the same wells tapped for the pending Springs Resort agreement.

Meanwhile The Springs Resort filed on absolute rights for the effluent discharge from town geothermal wells that would, if those rights were granted, give The Springs Resort ownership of that water. The filing has been a sticking point with the town, and The Springs Resort was been asked by the town to rescind the filing several times.

According to Pete Kasper, lead water commissioner in Pagosa Springs for the Division of Water Resources, The Springs Resort had still not revoked its filing on the rights. According to Kasper, discussions with attorneys for The Springs Resort revealed that, by maintaining the filing, The Springs Resort was “using the filing as a placeholder,” in case the town’s offer of a lease gets pulled.

Both parties, entrenched in their positions, were seemingly caught in a Catch-22: the town would not move forward with granting a lease on geothermal water unless The Springs Resort pulled its filing for rights on that water; The Springs Resort would not pull its filing on the water until it had assurances the town would grant a lease on that same water.

Bailout benefits schools. Local schools stood ready to receive about $500,000 in unanticipated extra federal revenue between 2009 and 2012, and the windfall announcement came as an unexpected by-product of the Oct. 3 federal bailout package.

Hand recount decides treasurer’s race. Another chapter in Archuleta County’s history was written when county clerk June Madrid conducted a hand recount of ballots cast during the Nov. 4 general election.

When the recount was complete, the outcome was the same — only the numbers had changed.

At recount’s end, Diller had 2,747 votes to Evans’ 2,547. The results in the first vote count had Diller the winner 2,745 to 2,300.

Local unemployment rises. Local unemployment numbers, though slightly more positive than state or national figures, reflected larger trends and might infer harder times ahead.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), unemployment numbers for Archuleta County increased from 3.7 percent in September 2007 to 4.4 percent for September 2008.

According to a report released by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, more than 136,000 Coloradans were unemployed and looking for work in September, compared with roughly 103,000 a year ago.

Geothermal leases continued. The imbroglio that characterized a proposed geothermal water lease continued to simmer at the mid-month meeting of the Pagosa Springs Town Council.

Unfortunately, for The Springs Resort, the Pagosa Springs town charter provided no latitude for allowing a chance at the lease. In addition, the Springs Resort’s filing for geothermal wastewater rights possibly violated Section 10.4.C of the town charter. Furthermore, that section of the charter is explicit in limiting leases to a 10-year period.

Springs Resort legal counsel asked if the town charter could be amended, and how it might be done.

Section 12.2 of the town charter provides recourse for amending the charter by placing a matter “to a vote of the registered electors of the town.” The matter would go to a vote through either a petition process that meets requirements set forth in Title 31, Article 2 of Colorado Revised Statutes, or by an ordinance submitted by the town council.

When asked if the town would be financially responsible for funding a special election to amend the charter, town attorney Bob Cole replied that the town would indeed be required to pay for the election.

According to town clerk April Hessman, the 2008 election for three council members cost the town $1,232.

County pushes for new oil and gas regulations. With oil and gas well permitting applications poised to hit a three-year high, the Archuleta County planning commission approved revised regulations they said should better safeguard area water resources, protect county roads and mitigate other drilling and resource extraction related impacts.

December

Schlosser convicted. After having his day in court, Nathan Schlosser, the perpetrator of an unprovoked assault that led to a victim losing an eye, will spend 10 years in state prison for the offense.

Deputy District Attorney Alex Lowe said Schlosser appeared before District Court Judge Gregory Lyman, and the 10-year sentence was part of a plea agreement linked to second-degree assault charges.

According to Lowe, the assault occurred May 25, 2007, when 21-year-old Schlosser attacked Donald Reid, 56, while Reid was standing in the driveway of his home on Canyon Circle in Pagosa Vista Estates.

Vast conservation easement finalized.

After four years of research and preparation, representatives of Alpine Cascade Corporation and the Southwest Land Alliance finalized a 6,300-acre conservation easement that will preserve nearly 10 square miles of prime wildlife habitat, nearly seven miles of the San Juan River corridor and one of Archuleta County’s most scenic view sheds — all just southwest of downtown Pagosa Springs.

Commissioners earmark dollars for arena project. The Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners allocated $150,000 from the Ballot Issue 1A parks and recreation funding pool to plan and build an equestrian arena and multi-use building on property adjacent to the Archuleta County Fairgrounds.

The commissioner decision to take $150,000 from the 2008 1A parks and recreation pool and another $250,000 from the Conservation Trust Fund drew the ire of numerous citizens, and sparked questions of timing, transparency, process and priorities.

Moomaw and Zaday defended their actions during the Dec. 9 meeting — Zaday describing the project as an “absolute necessity,” and Moomaw promising the building would serve more than just the equestrian community.

Skate park plans wither without funding. Plans for a skate park on the south end of the Pagosa Springs sports complex appeared to be no more than a pipe dream — or a half-pipe dream — due to cuts to the town’s capital improvement budget.

Faced with diminishing tax revenues, town officials met to confront cold, hard realities of the 2009 budget, stripping the capital improvement budget down to a single, bare bone: the Town Park pedestrian bridge. Given budgetary restrictions, other projects were either postponed indefinitely or scrapped altogether. Although not killed outright, the skate park was not given the green light as a 2009 project.

Town and county approve budgets. “Given the downturn in the national economy and in order to be prepared to respond quickly should the local economy experience a downturn,” read the introduction to the proposed 2009 budget for the town of Pagosa Springs, “departments propose to reduce expenditures between 6 and 10 percent beginning January of 2009.”

Presented at the mid-month council meeting, the budget reflected a general apprehension of future adversity and a climate of continued economic decline.

Meanwhile, and despite public outcry, the board of county commissioners approved a budget with $400,000 earmarked for a multi-use/arena facility slated for the construction adjacent to the Archuleta County Fairgrounds.

Beyond allocating funds for the controversial project, the county’s total revenue budget for all funds in 2009 was projected at $22.5 million. Expenditures were anticipated at $23.6 million. The county will use carry-over cash from 2008 to bridge the difference.

Town awards vested rights. During the mid-month meeting, council approved the first reading of an ordinance that would give 20-year vested rights to the proposed Blue Sky Village development.

Oil and gas regulations receive final approval. Archuleta County residents received unprecedented protections from the impacts of oil and gas drilling and exploration, following a commissioner decision to adopt and incorporate revised oil and gas regulations into the county land use code.

Chief among the differences between the former regulations and those adopted was the county’s ability to permit and review applications for drilling activity on federal lands.

In addition, the new regulations include county-level insurance and bonding requirements regarding surface impacts, and background checks for major and minor operations.

Also, new drillers or operators are now required to meet face-to-face with the county’s planning commission as part of the application process.

County hears 2007 audit report. The Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners received the 2007 government audit and with its completion, the state auditor has released the freeze on the county’s property taxes.

According to documentation provided by Wall, Smith, Bateman & Associates, county accounting showed incremental improvements in 2007, this time with a “qualified opinion,” rather than a “disclaimed opinion.” Nevertheless, the report shows the organization continued to struggle in the throes of the financial meltdown, with negative fund balances, poor record keeping, insufficient documentation and internal controls, violations of state statute and failures to conduct account reconciliations. However, Wall, Smith & Bateman accountant, Karla Willschau, lauded recent improvements in staff, policy and procedures and said the county was clearly on the road to recovery.

Although the county has struggled with late audits since audit year 2003, Archuleta County Finance Director Don Warn and Willschau said the 2008 audit will mark a major turning point in the county’s financial history.

Future land use map approved. Staff working on the county’s Urban Services Area Project marked a milestone when the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners accepted and endorsed the planning commission’s amendment to the Future Land Use Map found in the 2001 Archuleta County Community Plan.

The Archuleta County Planning Commission adopted the Future Land Use Map Dec. 11 during a public hearing, and with both commissions’ approvals, the map became official legislation.

According to county staff, the Urban Services Area and Future Land Use Map projects were undertaken to address future growth within the unincorporated, unsubdivided portion of the county between the current Town of Pagosa Springs limits and the town’s three mile annexation boundary as allowed and established by statute.

Specifically, the Future Land Use Map identified areas where growth may occur, but did not change the underlying zoning.