Basalt to suck highest water users dry? | AspenTimes.com

Basalt to suck highest water users dry?

The Basalt Town Council will be forced to decide in coming weeks just how stiff of penalties the highest water users should be required to pay.

A citizens’ committee made a strong pitch last night to overhaul the town’s existing water rates in favor of a system that treats all customers more equitably. Members of the committee said their proposal will encourage townwide conservation rather than pin blame on the handful of residents with big houses and big yards.

But a couple of dissenting residents questioned whether the proposed overhaul provides enough “incentive” for the highest residential water users to conserve.

Town council members did little to tip their hand on how they will resolve the debate. They said at least two public hearings – where all town citizens can weigh in – will be held before a decision is made.

The debate was sparked after last summer’s record-breaking drought, when the new water rates hit Basaltines in the wallet. Bills soared by more than 175 percent for the highest water users while residents who used smaller amounts only saw modest increases in their bills.

A citizens’ committee was formed by the council in December to review the system after some residents complained. The committee reported back last night with a proposal that would establish base fees plus water consumption rates for “reasonable” and “excess” use. Consumption allowances would be determined depending on house size and landscaped yard size.

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People with big yards and big houses would be allowed a different amount of water while people with smaller houses and yards would be allowed a different amount. Any users who exceeded their “reasonable” amounts would pay a penalty.

“The encouragement to conserve is a strong one,” said Peter Frey, a member of the water committee.

While the system sounds complicated, all the necessary data on house sizes and lot sizes is available from the assessors’ offices of Pitkin and Eagle counties, noted Frey.

He said the committee didn’t want to base water consumption rates on the number of residents in a house because it didn’t want to send the “water police” around to check on the validity of information.

Frey said an advantage of the proposed system is it doesn’t automatically assume that people with large families and big yards are wasteful water users.

But Basalt resident Auden Schendler challenged the proposal by noting that households with the largest yards would see their penalty for higher water use drop under the proposed system while people with smaller yards would see financial penalties increase for excess use.

He urged the council to keep the current residential consumption rates in place and make adjustments, if necessary, by lowering the $60 base fee charged by the town per quarter of the year.

Members of the citizens’ committee contended that the fees currently charged raise more money than needed to operate the water infrastructure and maintain a reserve fund. Water committee member Ellen Knous said the current water rate structure is collecting about $150,000 more annually than the town needs.

“The reserve fund is adequate and too much money is being collected from the public right now,” she said.

But some council members indicated they aren’t willing to let the reserve fund dwindle lower without first reviewing the upgrades that may be needed to the water infrastructure.

In general, council members seemed receptive to the proposal, especially the idea of revising the rates charged to commercial users. But council members also said they need to dig into the proposal in much greater detail before they can decide on revisions. No specific meetings were set, but they will be held later this spring.

Details on the water rate proposal can be acquired at Town Hall.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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