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Water fight

Oak Creek battle brews over metering

— Bob Johnson has been keeping the grass green for Oak Creek schools for 12 years.

Johnson, who also coaches Soroco High School girls basketball, has never seen the water bill. But he knows the school district gets a good deal.

That might change in a few years.



The town of Oak Creek currently charges residents and businesses in the community a flat rate for water, but a city ordinance passed in 1996 requires the town to install and use water meters on or by Sept. 1, 2005.

That means the school district could be paying much more to keep its grass green in the future.



While Soroco School District Superintendent Steve Jones is concerned the school district might not be prepared to pay a bigger water bill.

The district currently pays $264 a month for its water.

By comparison, the Steamboat Springs school district’s water costs run about $2,400 per month and Hayden’s run between $700 and $1,100 per month.

“If we are asked to spend too much money, we won’t be able to do it,” Jones said. “If it comes down to educating our kids or letting the fields turn brown, we’ll let the fields turn brown.”

Oak Creek Town Manager Ray Leibensperger is hesitant to say how much the school district might pay under a water meter plan, but he hopes that the town and the school district can sit down and discuss their options.

Oak Creek now charges its flat fee to several different classes of water users, including laundromats, restaurants, bars, car washes, low-income residents, general residents and schools.

“Right now, there’s no way to establish equity across the board,” Leibensperger said.

It’s unfair that a small family now pays about as much as a business for water, he added.

And a flat fee doesn’t exactly encourage conservation water usage in Oak Creek is three times the national average, Leibensperger said.

Leibensperger said the switch to meters is not an effort by the city to create an additional revenue stream. Rather, it’s an effort to devise a more equitable system.

“When it hits you in the pocketbook,” he said, “you tend to use your water a little more wisely.”

He estimates that meters and metering equipment will cost the town about $87,000, in addition to an estimated $150 to $250 to install each meter.

The town is seeking grants to help defray those costs, he added.

“We’re not looking at targeting anyone in particular,” Leibensperger said. “Everybody will be paying more. That’s how it goes.”

But the school district pointed out it will be paying more to water ball fields that are used by the town as a whole, not just the schools.

A road that leads up to the city cemetery divides the Oak Creek campus and its football, softball and baseball fields. Those fields are not within city limits, but the school district is charged because it uses city water.

Those fields, however, host Triple Crown tournament, which net significant revenues for Oak Creek businesses.

“This issue is one that touches more than the school,” Jones said. “Those fields are not generating money for the school; they’re generating money for the town.”

Dale Mellor, finance director for the Steamboat Springs School District, can sympathize with Soroco’s impending water bill.

“Like other school districts, we don’t have money to burn,” Mellor said. “Utilities in general are just expensive.”

The Hayden School District pays anywhere from $700 to $1100 each month for its water, Hayden School District Manager Jnl Linsacum said.

The amount depends on the time of year, and also includes sewage costs.

“We can certainly understand their difficulty with this,” Linsacum said. “It’s tough with so many budget cuts coming up.”

Hayden schools save money by paying a yearly fee to use ditch water to water some of their fields, she said.

Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Yampa all use water meters to some degree, County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said.

“It’s unfortunate that Soroco may have to pay more,” Stahoviak said, “but they’ve gotten a very good deal for a very long time.”

Stahoviak is confident that the school district has enough time to come up with a budget by 2005.

“If they can plan now,” she said, “they won’t be scraping for the money later.”

To reach Danie Harrelson, call 871-4208 or e-mail dharrelson@steamboatpilot.com


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