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To grow or not to grow?

Saratoga council hears opposing viewpoints on USFS annexation, clock ticking on USFS funding

 


The Saratoga Town Council held a public hearing Thursday at Platte Valley Community Center to allow citizens and council members to discuss a proposal to annex the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) facility into the town.

Nearly 20 members of the public were in attendance, not including USFS employees and members of the news media. Of members of the public who spoke, several were in favor of annexing the USFS property, but several others were opposed, some citing a failure by the town to address existing sewer issues that could be exacerbated by a large facility such as the USFS joining the town’s sewer and water system.

Joining the town’s water system was the USFS’ original goal, according to Melanie Fullman, Hayden/Brush Creek District Ranger for the USFS. In late 2016, the USFS approached the Saratoga Water and Sewer Joint Powers Board (sewer board) about having town water supplied to the USFS facility.

The well water at the USFS facility has low pressure and according to Fullman is, “on the low end of being potable.”

The sewer board signaled its desire to work with the USFS to get the facility on town water, but said for reasons of infrastructure development and potential future expansion, the USFS would also have to install a sewer line.

The USFS agreed to those terms, despite the fact the facility’s existing septic system was sufficient for current and future use. After the USFS submitted engineering plans to the sewer board for a water and sewer line, the board referred the USFS to the town council to discuss whether the property should be formally annexed into the town.

Existing water and sewage problems should take priority, residents say

At the meeting, a group of homeowners spoke out against the annexation of the USFS property and adding the facility to the towns’ water and sewer system. The homeowners who live in four houses near the intersection of South Veterans and South River Streets say their homes are plagued by an illegally installed series of sewer lines that cause problems for the homeowners.

Don Hodgkiss, the owner of a property on 1712 South River Street said after approaching the town about rectifying the situation, they were told by the town they “are on our own.”

After consulting engineering firms, the homeowners discovered the cost of rectifying the situation with the sewer lines would be about $10,000 per affected home.

Under state law, an illegal sewer line renders the property unsalable, according to Hodgkiss who said such a line would have to be disclosed and would likely scare off any potential buyers.

Hodgkiss said the affected homeowners were concerned that adding the USFS to the town’s sewer system would overload the sewer lines in their neighborhood and cause more problems.

“We should not add the Forest Service to the sewer system at all until this problem is resolved,” Hodgkiss told council members.

Roger Cox, an attendee who sits on the sewer board expressed concern that the USFS’ design for the water system is not sufficient. While admitting he was not an engineer, Cox said he did not believe the 6” line proposed by the USFS would be enough to supply the facility’s peak demand, and there may not be enough head—essentially water pressure at the main line—to support the facility’s water needs.

Cox said in his opinion, the USFS needs at least an 8” pipe to meet its demand.

Fullman said the plan was put together by professional engineers who assured the USFS that a 6” pipe would be sufficient for the agency’s needs given the water pressure coming off the main. She also added that the U.S. Government has its own building codes and standards that are more stringent than most municipal building codes or engineering standards.

One member of the public, who was in favor of the annexation, said the 8” line should be constructed and the town should annex the property.

Saratoga Mayor Ed Glode said going to an 8” line would push the cost of the project from around $300,000 to nearly $1 million. The USFS—which is paying for the project—does not have the budget for a $1 million project, Fullman said.

A Tax Boon for Saratoga, or a Tax Bust?

Some members of the public in favor of the annexation brought up potential tax revenues for the town as a benefit in annexation.

“The federal government does not pay taxes to any entity,” Fullman said, but added that the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), of which USFS is part, does make “Payment In Lieu of Taxes,” or PILT, payments. PILT payments are made to local governments that host federal government properties and buildings and is intended to offset property tax losses.

The Formula by which PILT payments are determined—and the levels to which the program is funded—is determined by congress on an annual basis said Carbon County Commissioner Sue Jones.

In 2016, PILT payments to Carbon County totaled $1.3 million for the 2.7 million acres in the county owned by the DOI.

According to a representative at the DOI Office of Budget, which administers the PILT program, the USFS determines PILT payments by total acreage and pays PILT funds directly to the county.

The DOI does not have data breaking down individual properties by their share of PILT payments. If the town were to annex the USFS property, PILT funds would still be paid to Carbon County based on total acreage unless the State of Wyoming directed them to do otherwise, the DOI said.

Good Neighbors?

Much like it doesn’t have to pay taxes unless it chooses to as it does with PILT, the federal government is also immune from local ordinances and regulations.

Several people in attendance at the meeting brought that up and questioned whether the USFS would run roughshod over local ordinances.

Fullman responded by saying that while the federal government is not bound to follow local ordinances, it usually does to be a good neighbor. The Forest Service, she said, does not wish to engender bad feelings between itself and the local municipal government or residents.

“I’ve worked at seven or eight facilities in my career and each of them had a good neighbor policy,” Fullman said.

In previous meetings with the sewer board, board members commented that in the past whenever attempts had been made to work with the forest service by getting the office on municipal water, the negotiations were poisoned by the management at the USFS.

At Thursday’s meeting, Glode pointed out the people who poisoned past negotiations were no longer at the forest service, and the new administration seemed to be much more amenable to working with the town.

Fullman also pointed out many USFS personnel were residents of Saratoga who live here, pay taxes here and are engaged in the community. The USFS, she said, also brings in about 20 seasonal employees every year in the summer which contributes to the town’s economy.

Her seasonal employees are not troublemakers, she said, adding she expects the best from those she manages and considers the USFS a good employer in the Valley.

A Tight Timetable and A Future Vote

The town could decide to annex the property and allow the USFS to tie into its water and sewer system or it could vote to not annex the property but still allow the facility to tie into town utilities.

There have been several instances in the past where the town has allowed those not within town limits to use municipal water and sewer. One example offered is the Old Baldy Club which is on town water and sewer, but not within town limits.

The town, Glode said, opted to not annex Old Baldy to avoid the expense of providing other municipal services like plowing and police coverage.

Though there is a lot for council members and the public to debate, the USFS is up against the clock and further delays might mean the facility will not get its badly-needed drinking water managers have been hoping for.

Because of the way federal funding works, if the USFS is to begin the project of installing water and sewer lines to tie into the town’s utilities, the project must begin by June or else the funding will be lost, Fullman advised attendees.

After hearing members of the public and statements from the council, Glode said the council could not vote on the matter at Thursday’s meeting. Under state law, the town must advertise the public hearing and notify owners of adjacent lands by registered mail.

While the council did advertise the hearing per legal requirements, the requirement of notifying adjacent property owners had been overlooked, Glode said, adding he just found out about it from the town’s attorney.

Because the property owners had not been legally notified, the council could not vote on the annexation.

The next regular meeting of the Saratoga Town Council will be held at 6 p.m. May 16 at Saratoga Town Hall.

 

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