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Legislation targeting sewer rate hike down the tubes

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By AJ Vicens

As a legislative attempt to rein in Littleton's sewer-fee increase failed in the last days of the 2008 legislative session, South Jeffco water and sanitation districts have come together to plot a common strategy to fight back.

The Littleton City Council approved a 20 percent fee increase April 15 for users outside the city limits. Littleton residents will not see an increase. The council also doubled tap fees inside and outside the city.

The increases affect thousands of South Jeffco residents who are customers of districts that feed into the Littleton/Englewood Wastewater Treatment Plant. District managers say they are not opposed to increases, just to a differential increase affecting customers with no representation on the board.

"Seventy-five percent of the plant's customers aren't represented fairly," Larry Moore, general manager of the Roxborough Water and Sanitation District, said May 12 at a meeting with other district heads. Moore said only 25 percent of the plant's customers live in Englewood or Littleton, and the rest are in districts outside the cities.

Moore said that the Roxborough district is already moving forward with plans to sue Littleton over the increase.

Pat Fitzgerald, Platte Canyon Water and Sanitation District manager, said the districts want a rate study to determine the fairness of the differential increase. Littleton will be invited to participate, Fitzgerald said. The districts will also evaluate their agreements with Littleton and possibly introduce amendments to add representation, Fitzgerald said, along with exploring litigation and legislation in the 2009 legislative session.

State Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, tried to attach a relevant amendment to legislation reauthorizing the Public Utilities Commission. The amendment would have put more authority with the PUC to evaluate the fairness of rate hikes for extra-territorial customers of a utility provider, but the amendment was stripped at the end of the session.

"For us, the issue was the PUC was never in the business of sewer rate regulation before; the amendment was introduced the last few days of the session; (and) it was never discussed in committee," said Geoff Wilson, general counsel for the Colorado Municipal League, which represents Colorado cities' interests at the state Capitol. "Our objections to this amendment are primarily procedural and process-oriented. That's why we have a legislative process: to vett things."

Wilson also said the fact that Roxborough may pursue litigation suggests there is a remedy for users outside the district.

"If there are grounds to be sued, that proves the people who are upset have a remedy," Wilson said. "Then the argument is whether the remedy is too expensive, or takes too long, not whether the remedy exists."

Kopp said he was disappointed the amendment failed but acknowledged that it came too late in the session to get any real traction. He added that he will bring the issue up again next year, probably as an individual piece of legislation.

"I'm frankly pretty irritated with the PUC," Kopp said. "Is the sanitation district a utility? Yes. Is it a monopoly? Yes. Is it regulated? No. Put those three facts together, and you realize the constituents in South Jeffco are not being treated fairly under current law."

Notices have already been sent out in some of the districts about the increased fees, and the other districts will send theirs out soon.

Fitzgerald summed up the districts' beef with Littleton's decision with one simple sentence: "(Littleton) fully intends to balance their budget on the backs of the outside users."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.