Special districts: The underground government

Three years ago, a not-so-quiet revolution occurred in Montezuma County when the board members of the Cortez Sanitation District were resoundingly recalled over a policy that the majority of its customers saw as heartless and draconian.

The district’s manager had ordered workers to dig up and plug with concrete the sewer line at the residence of a woman whose family was having severe medical and financial problems. The action was taken because she had gotten behind on her bill.

When a reporter wrote that the woman had then been forced to sell her wedding rings to pay the $500 reconnection fee, the story was picked up by some major media outlets in the state and the publicity sparked the recall movement.

Even though the board members vigorously defended the manager during the recall campaign, a new board was elected, the manager was fired and a more compassionate policy toward delinquent customers was adopted.

That is one of the few instances in recent history when any of this area’s numerous special districts made big news. Ordinarily, board members only vacate their positions because of relocation, retirement or death, and competition for open seats is infrequent.

But even though they usually maintain low profiles, these districts are indeed special. From our births to deaths, from the food and water we ingest to the waste we eliminate, from the books we read to the TV we watch, and particularly in times of sickness and disaster, special districts in Montezuma County and other parts of Colorado play vital roles in residents’ lives.

This area’s volunteer fire-fighting organizations and hospital facilities are funded and operated through special districts. Much of the county’s water, an increasingly scarce commodity, is parceled out by special districts. Controlling mosquitoes in most of the county is done by a special district. The Dolores and Mancos public libraries are supported by special districts. Free over-the-air TV and radio signals are provided by yet another district. Conservation districts look after crop and grazing lands through erosion-control programs. Maintenance of the county’s seven cemeteries is accomplished by special districts. (And, of course, sewer service in the Cortez area is operated by a special district.)

In fact, Colorado is among the top 10 states when it comes to the number of special districts, with more than 1,200 performing such functions across the state. Illinois had the most, with more than 2,900.

Nationwide, the number of special districts increased 300 percent between 1952 and 2002, according to a report called “Where We Stand,” prepared for the St. Louis, Mo., area. The number in 2002 was 31,555 nationwide.

But oversight of most districts is slight, beyond the boards that run them, and there is really no higher authority that regularly checks into what they do.

Montezuma County Administrator Tom Weaver explained that county government exercises no control over the districts, even though many residents mistakenly believe it does. The only connection between special districts and the county, Weaver, explained, is that the county treasurer collects their mill levies along with its own property taxes and passes the money on for a administrative small fee. Still, he said, the county often gets questions and complaints concerning some districts’ operation.

“A special district is really just a separate government entity – they levy their own taxes (and) there is no oversight by the county,” he explained. “They answer to the Division of Local Governments in Denver just like we do.”

A special district is created to provide services not available through other local governments by a vote of the people who either live within its proposed boundaries or own property in it. And while districts are controlled solely by their boards of directors, state law requires they be formed for very specific purposes that must be detailed in a service plan submitted to district court and the county commission.

For example, when Cortez needed to develop a modern sewage system in the 1960s, the city was in a financial bind, and couldn’t have borrowed the money for its construction. So the Cortez Sanitation District was approved by voters to build and operate the system and pay off the construction bonds through a small property tax and user fees.

(In the early 1990s the city attempted to absorb the district and operate it as a municipal department, but voters turned down this consolidation effort after a bitter campaign against the proposal conducted by the district’s board members.)

With rare exceptions such as the wedding-ring incident, the general public displays little or no interest in the functions of special districts. Many residents assume these services are provided by town or county governments and tend to take them for granted, just as long as water gushes out of the spigot, toilets flush freely and fires are put out promptly.

Like any other government entity, the various districts’ monthly board meetings are open to the public and press, but seldom include either. Occasionally there will be a citizen or two in attendance on missions of self-interest and a reporter might cover a meeting if some particularly hot issue is on the agenda.

Yet special-district boards, made up of either elected or appointed citizens, spend millions of dollars each year collected as small parts of county property taxes along with the fees some charge for their services.

In Montezuma County, there are 24 special districts that handle annual mill-levy tax revenues ranging from $972 for the tiny Sylvan Cemetery District up to $871,846 for the sanitation district.

In Dolores County, there are nine special districts, with the Dove Creek Fire Protection District getting the most in tax revenues, $56,158 in 2003.

Some districts have boundaries that overlap county lines.

But despite the important job special districts do and they money they handle, finding people willing to fill vacancies on these boards often requires a diligent search.

For instance, on the first Tuesday in May, the date for most such elections, most of Montezuma County’s 24 special districts will not even offer balloting for directors, since they have only enough candidates – usually those already serving – to fill the open seats, in which case no election is required.

One exception this year is the Southwest Colorado Television Translator Association, which provides 22 free over-the-air TV channels, as well as some FM radio signals, to most of Montezuma County and parts of La Plata and Dolores counties. SCTTA has three candidates, including two incumbents, running for two seats on its five-member board. Directors are paid $69 for attending monthly meetings and keeping abreast of current issues.

Much of its $188,000 budget is used to maintain and upgrade equipment, according to Manager Wayne Johnson, and to pay for electricity and the delivery of the signals, some of which are not carried on cable and others that the local cable company picks up from the translators.

“Let’s say you buy a satellite dish, and you get your ESPN, TBS, Home and Garden and stuff like that,” Johnson said, “but you can still have an antenna and get all the local stuff that we have, whether it’s Denver, Grand Junction or Albuquerque.

“And a lot of people who can’t afford that $30 or $40 a month can put up an antenna and still be well informed with what’s happening in the world,” he added. “When you figure out what it cost to run the TV district per (average) household, it’s $6 or $7 a year — that’s pretty cheap for your TV.”

The sanitation district, governed by a board of five who are paid $75 a meeting, is also holding an election, but not for directors, since three incumbents are the only ones running for those three open seats.

The board is presently overseeing the construction of a new sewer plant and developing plans to replace several miles of aging sewer lines. The district has annual revenue of nearly $900,000 from property tax, in addition to its income from user and tap fees.

Board President Bob Diederich explained the ballots will ask voters to make the district exempt from the revenue limits imposed by the TABOR amendment to the state constitution so the district can apply for grants for replacing the sewer lines.

“Our main concerns right now are getting the new plant started and also getting the money to replace sewer lines that have been in the ground 50 years,” Diederich said, many of which are made of clay and asbestos.

The Pleasant View Fire Protection District, which has six candidates vying for three open seats, is the only other district in Montezuma County that will be holding an election May 4 for directors. Part of this district lies in Dolores County.

Dolores County, with nine mill-levy-funded special districts providing similar services, has only one that will hold an election Tuesday. The Dove Creek Conservation District, which receives no funds through mill levies but is funded by federal money, will have a de-Brucing measure to exempt it from revenue limits imposed by TABOR. Its board members, five farmers and ranchers vitally interested in soil conservation and erosion control, receive no pay for their service, and are only compensated for their mileage to and from the meetings.

In terms of human welfare, obviously, the fire-protection districts, staffed almost entirely by unpaid volunteers whose courage and dedication too often go unrecognized, are of paramount importance. In addition to Pleasant View, the Cortez, Dolores, Mancos, Lewis-Arriola, Dove Creek and Rico areas each support fire districts, with property owners paying modest mill levies to purchase and maintain fire houses and equipment.

For instance, a $100,000 residence is taxed $50 annually to pay for fire protection in the Mancos district, and slightly over $60 in the Cortez district, which figures out to around a dollar a week.

In addition to fighting structure fires and wildfires, these volunteers respond to myriad dangerous situations, always among the first to arrive at accident scenes and medical emergencies.

Cortez Fire Marshal Frank Cavaliere, a salaried employee who is under contract with the city of Cortez to do fire inspections and also works with the other districts on fire-safety issues, stressed that the service so freely given by these volunteers is invaluable.

“It’s just amazing, the job that they do,” he said.

Some governmental watchdog groups are critical of the proliferation of special districts and believe that, whenever possible, they should be consolidated or eliminated. For instance, many districts created to run hospitals have since turned that task over to private corporations, critics say. Such is the situation with the Montezuma County Hospital District.

But once formed, special districts rarely go away.

For example, there has been discussion from time to time of consolidating Montezuma County’s five fire districts into one entity, he said, but there is no serious effort under way to do it.

“It would be a huge undertaking, but not an impossible undertaking, because La Plata County did it,” Cavaliere said, “and they’re saving their taxpayers a substantial amount of money” through increasing the unified fire department’s purchasing power and eliminating the duplication of services and training.

There is, however, a Montezuma County Fire Chiefs Association that is coordinating equipment purchases with Homeland Security Department grants for first responders.

“They’re working toward a common goal – standardizing the breathing apparatus we wear, (and) they’re in the process of purchasing and building a compressor truck” that will be shared by the districts, he said.

Occasionally special district do catch the public’s attention. The mosquito district came under fire several years ago for using Malathion rather than more biologically sensitive controls. Eventually the district altered its longstanding policy and hired a firm to use biological controls instead.

And the Cortez Cemetery District was in the news in 2001 because it had cleaned off people’s graves, in the process removing some memorabilia that family members found irreplaceable.

But for the most part the underground governments continue to operate, well, underground.

The Cortez Sanitation District, Southwest TV Translator District, and Pleasant View Fire Protection District will have candidate elections and/or ballot questions on Tuesday, May 4. The polling place is the Montezuma County annex.

The Dove Creek Conservation District will have a de-Brucing measure on its ballot on May 4 as well.

From May 2004.