Residents are divided on the Wastewater Treatment Plant at Santa Rita Park, with some seeing a “no” vote as a referendum to city officials to revisit the issue of location. However, almost everyone agrees the current plant needs some serious upgrades./File photo

Waste not, want not

Residents disagree on sewer bond measure

by Tracy Chamberlin

Although two out of the three ballot questions this year focus on taxes, the hot button issue around town isn’t really about money. It’s location, location, location.

The Durango City Council recently voted, unanimously, to keep the Wastewater Treatment Plant at Santa Rita Park. After a year of research, analysis and heated discussions, the council decided all options had been exhausted and the best one for the community was to keep the plant right where it is.

Not everyone agrees with that decision.

Some city residents don’t believe all the options have been fully vetted. They’re not convinced it’s time to give up on moving the plant, and they want to see Ballot Question 2B stand as a referendum on the council’s choice.

Other residents, some of whom also wanted to see the plant move, don’t believe voting against the ballot question will solve anything. In fact, they’re supporting it because they see a host of potentially adverse consequences.

Both sides have something to say on the issue and hope the community is listening.

At the center of the debate is the 30-year-old Wastewater Treatment Plant, which isn’t up to snuff according to the state. This is where the two sides actually come together. Neither disputes that the plant has to accomplish two goals before February 2018, costing Durango between $5-6 million.

First, the plant needs new holding ponds for the wastewater, where it aerates the liquid before it heads into the plant for processing. Second, the state has standards for how much ammonia is allowed to be in the water after it’s processed and pumped into the river. Durango isn’t living up to those standards – at least, not yet.

For some, there is a sense of urgency. They believe the clock is ticking.

The year 2018 might seem like a long way off, but 2016 is only two months away. So, with slightly more than two years to complete the project, the city still has to figure out funding, get bids for construction, actually get the shovels in the dirt and hit the finish line.

Other residents don’t feel so rushed.

They say the upgrades can happen to the plant and be completed ahead of the state’s deadline without having to hurry the decision on where to put a new plant. For them, voters haven’t been given enough time to digest the issue and organize a response.

“This is the wrong way to try to pass $68 million in new debt,” explained Jon Broholm, a Durango resident who plans on voting “no” on ballot question 2B.

Proposition BB brings marijuana tax to the voters – again

That’s the thing about guessing – it could mean having to go back to the beginning.

When the state asked voters in 2013 to approve taxes on the newly legalized retail marijuana industry, it estimated how much revenue that would mean in its first year.

But, the estimate was wrong. The revenue turned out to be more – much, much more.

As such, under Tabor, state officials must now go back to the voters and ask if they can keep the excess or if residents want it back. This question is posed in Proposition BB on this fall’s ballot.

Taxes on retail marijuana are essentially broken down into three parts. The first is the 15 percent excise tax. This is something the business pays to the state. The second is the retail marijuana sales tax, which is a 10 percent tax customers pay at the point of sale. The third is the state and local sales taxes, the same ones customers pay when purchasing anything.

If voters approve the measure, the state will get to keep $66.1 million. The first $40 million will be spent on school construction and repair, just as was promised in the original 2013 ballot question. Another $12 million will go to programs aimed at marijuana education, substance abuse and enforcement. How the remaining $14.1 million would be spent is up to the State Legislature.

If the measure fails, the $25 million taken in as part of the sales taxes would get refunded on 2016 state income taxes – an average $7 per resident. The portion paid in excise taxes would get refunded to the retail shops, growers and other businesses who paid it in the first place.

There are outspoken supporters on both sides, but no one is spending a whole lot on those campaigns.

Tracy Chamberlin

The ballot measure asks Durango voters if they would authorize the city to take out a debt of no more than $68 million to either pay for improvements to the current Wastewater Treatment Plant or build a new one.

And, it’s not the only thing city residents need to pay for in the years ahead. The fact that the Wastewater Treatment Plant isn’t the only future financial need is actually another point where both sides come together.

For some, that’s a reason to keep costs down.

“We have other infrastructure needs coming down the pike,” explained local resident Jeff Bork, who plans on voting “yes” to Question 2B. He mentioned the airport, police station and water treatment facilities.

For others, that’s the real reason for the rush to get it to voters now.

With the bond debt issue on the ballot this year, Bruce Garlic, who plans on voting “no,” said the city would be free to bring another financial request to residents next year – the need for a new airport.

Sewer rate hikes already in affect and scheduled to rise incrementally over the next several years would be used to pay off the $68 million loan for the plant improvements. Any additional funds needed for construction would mean raising rates even more.

According to the reports from Mulhearn MRE, an Englewood-based engineering firm hired to examine alternative sites, it would cost about $58 million to remodel the existing plant and an extra $17-20 million to move it.

 “Not everybody can pay more,” said Mayor Pro Tem Christina Rinderle. “It’s one more thing that makes it harder to live here.”

But, not everyone believes the move has to cost so much.

“I think there’s a good chance it could be relocated to Cundiff Park at a similar cost to what is budgeted for Santa Rita,” Broholm said. “Residents deserve accurate cost figures for projects at both of those locations, before approving the debt and spending.”

Rinderle describes herself and Mayor Dean Brookie, two of the five-member City Council, as reluctant converts. Both wanted to see the plant moved and stayed in that camp until the end.

After analyzing each potential site and the challenges they posed, she watched the options dwindle. Eventually, she felt the only possibility left was a sliver of private property along the Animas River, between State Highway 3 and Highway 550 near the Durango Mall.

During a City Council meeting where the details of that option were presented
one of the families who owned a portion of the land informed the council they did not want to sell. They wanted the land to stay in the family.

This meant the only way to put a new plant there was to take the land by condemnation, or eminent domain. Rinderle said that was the moment she changed her mind.

“I don’t think anybody would appreciate condemnation,” she added. 

An additional reason Rinderle said she became a convert was that not everything can be moved. The headworks, the spot where all the city’s wastewater hits the plant, would stay behind no matter what the council decided.

This also means the pipes and pumps that would take the wastewater from the headworks at Santa Rita to any new site could create a potential environmental hazard.

“It’s not going to be a pristine park either way,” she said.

City Manager Ron LeBlanc said city officials looked at several possible alternative sites for a new plant, taking a detailed look at seven or eight specific locations. Some of those include the private property near the Durango Mall, ones by the county jail, the Dog Park, La Posta Road and Cundiff Park, which is currently home to the BMX track.

Broholm believes Cundiff Park hasn’t been fully explored and remains a possibility.

One of the reasons city officials have given for deciding against that location was its link to GOCO, or Great Outdoors Colorado.

The GOCO program takes money from the state lottery and reinvests it in parks, trails and other open space programs across the state. The city would not only be required to return some money if Cundiff were used, but officials fear it could negatively impact this area’s future GOCO bids.

But some voters opposed to keeping the park at Santa Rita, like Broholm, don’t feel that GOCO would hold it against the city for future grant requests. And the money that would have to be returned is a small amount.

As the debate over the council’s decision on location continues, something is getting lost in the argument. Bork said there are
financial side effects to voting “no.”

“No one has talked about the first immediate consequence,” he added.

Without the ability to take out a loan, or bond debt, to pay for the immediate upgrades, the city would have to raise rates and pay for the construction with cash. Sewer rates are already scheduled to increase in January to an average of $50 a month. According to LeBlanc, that could double without the bond.

If the measure doesn’t pass, he said elected city officials and staff would convene emergency meetings before the end of the year to figure out the next steps.

Among their options, City Council could consider a return to the voters with another loan request or even revisiting the idea of moving the plant.

For some voters, this is Durango’s last and best chance to move the plant. “We need to move the plant,” Garlic said. “This is the opportune time to do it.”

For others, the move means taking too much and risking too much. “A ‘no’ vote does not mean that the location is going to change,” Rinderle said. “It does mean delaying the project, and it will be more expensive.”