Pitkin County looks to move ahead with water fund, board | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County looks to move ahead with water fund, board

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” Pitkin County officials disagreed recently on exactly how to handle the county’s new Healthy Rivers and Streams Fund, created by voters last November.

They could not agree, in fact, on how many members should be appointed to an advisory board in charge of the fund, or whether those members should all be Pitkin County residents or from nearby communities and counties, as well.

But the Board of County Commissioners did agree with Commissioner Rachel Richards, who wants to get that board appointed and working on its task as soon as possible.

The advisory board’s job is to make recommendations to commissioners on how to spend roughly $1 million in annual revenues from a 1 cent sales tax approved by Pitkin County voters in November 2008. The ballot language also authorized the county to borrow up to $12 million against the sales tax revenues, if needed.

According to the wording of the ballot question, the board is to spend the money on maintaining and improving water quality and quantity within the Roaring Fork River watershed; to buy, modify, lease or otherwise manage water rights; work to assure minimum streamflows in local waterways; and other actions.

Cindy Houben, the county’s senior long-range planner, along with County Attorney John Ely and Open Space and Trails Director Dale Will, volunteered on Tuesday to provide staff support to the fund and to the advisory board, once it is formed.

“We felt like it was pretty important not to spend money on staff this year,” said Houben at Tuesday’s work session with the commissioners, a reference to the ongoing economic recession that has cut into government revenues at all levels. It also was mentioned that county staffers felt they could have the advisory board filled and at work by June.

But three commissioners said they would prefer to take more time to get the board going. And one said he would prefer that at least Ely and Will stick to the jobs they have rather than take on new responsibilities.

“I have a timeline, and it’s a long time,” said commissioner Michael Owsley. “It could be three years as far as I’m concerned.”

As for the staffing idea, he said, “I have a problem with that.” To Will, Owsley said, “you’re overburdened as it is,” and he told Ely that he should focus his energies on providing the county with legal advice and running the county attorney’s office.

Owsley added that he felt the voters, as well as the neighborhood caucuses around the county, should be consulted on what they think should be the priorities and policies of the advisory board.

“We’re building up this fund and there’s too many people that are anxious to spend it,” Owsley declared. “I’m not anxious to spend it.”

Other commissioners agreed that taking a little time might not be a bad idea, but Richards, who was the most vocal proponent of creating both the fund and the advisory board, felt otherwise.

“I do feel there is a sense of urgency,” Richards said, explaining that a drought could hit the county next summer or the summer after, and the county would be helpless to keep water in rivers as things now stand.

Plus, she said, the advisory board members would need time to “get up to speed” in such arcane policy areas as water law, the Colorado River Compact, and other water-related issues, which would involve travel to training seminars, conferences and the like.

“I’m in no rush to spend the money,” she said, agreeing with Owsley and others.

But talk of waiting three years before putting the fund to work is not acceptable, she said, pointing out, “We asked for this fund for a reason.” She said there are numerous water-related issues coming to a head around the state that the advisory board should be involved in, and the sooner it is up and running, the better prepared it will be.

In the end, commissioners agreed that Houben, Ely and Will can act as the initial staff for the fund and the advisory board. And at a work session next week, the board will talk further with its staff about the policies and goals the advisory board will pursue.


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