Yampa will ask voters for 2% sales tax in November to fund fixes to neglected wastewater system
The lagoons the town uses to treat water haven't been serviced in 20 years and Yampa's collection system is under a consent decree from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The town of Yampa will ask voters to support a 2% sales tax measure in November that would fund replacing a neglected wastewater treatment plant and fix deteriorating water collection lines in town that together are expected to cost $9.1 million.
If approved, the measure would help finance a $2.5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would be repaid over the next 40 years and allow the town to leverage roughly $6.6 million in grants from a variety of sources.
Brian Ashley, a former town board member and part of a group called the Yampa Community Task Force that has been studying how to fund fixes to the wastewater infrastructure, said the town board has been looking at making these repairs since 2018 but wasn’t able to make much progress.
“The problems are coming to a head now and we need to do something,” Ashley said in a community meeting in Yampa on Monday.
In the meeting, it was clear that failure to pass the sales tax would not make the town’s problems go away and could force other options that may have a more significant financial impact on town residents. It could also delay when fixes could happen, with both the cost of installing the new plant increasing and grant opportunities currently available disappearing.
While there was a handful of skeptics, by the end of the meeting it appeared the roughly two-dozen Yampa residents in the room were in agreement they needed to talk to their neighbors to get convince them to support the proposed tax measure.
“What happens if our town doesn’t vote it in, what are we doing?” one resident asked.
“Then we go to plan B,” Ashley responded.
“What’s our plan B?” the resident asked.
“We’ll decide that in November,” Ashley said. “User fees are decided by the town board, they don’t have to go to the voters.”
“We need to put that out there in the community,” the resident continued. “Either you’re willing to pay the 2% tax or you might be looking at a $50 [a month] user fee increase.”
The town’s wastewater plant is a lagoon system, similar to many of the systems utilized in Routt County. Lagoons work by aerating water in three pools, which promotes the growth of bacteria to treat the water with the biosolids left behind sinking to the bottom. Ashely said those lagoons have not been dredged in 20 years, which has reduced their effectiveness.
This has led the water from the plant that is released back into the Yampa River to not meet state standards set by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The agency hasn’t placed an enforcement order on the plant yet, only because the town has been working to replace it.
Yampa intends to replace the plant with a mechanical system similar to what Routt County is installing to replace lagoon-style plants in Phippsburg and Milner. Building this plant and decommissioning these lagoons is estimated to cost about $6.8 million.
The town’s collection system is worse, with water seeping into sewer lines when the water table is high, increasing the amount of water that the plant needs to treat. The collection system also does not meet state standards and Yampa is currently under a consent decree to fix it. Fixing 23,000 linear feet of sewer lines and 72 manholes will cost about $2.35 million.
State standards for each of these systems have increased in recent years and are expected to continue to get more stringent.
Town staff have worked to secure funding for the project and has identified several grants to fund the needed fixes. This includes grants from Routt County, CDPHE, the Department of Local Affairs Energy Impact Assistance fund, a DOLA Community Development Block Grant, and a grant from the USDA. While most of the project is being funded by grants, many of these sources have not been officially secured yet and will require a contribution from the town.
The task force studied several of the avenues to raise the town’s portion of the funding including the proposed sales tax, an increase in water user fees and a property tax. The sales tax, which would double the amount of sales tax applied to goods purchased in the town, was seen by the task force as the best of the three options.
A property tax would lead to a roughly $560 increase in taxes each year for a home worth $250,000 in the town. One resident at the meeting noted that even in Yampa property values have increased to where not many homes are worth $250,000 anymore and the increase would likely be steeper for individual homeowners. That increase in property values will significantly increase property taxes across the county, and asking for more property taxes right now wasn’t seen by the task force as a palatable solution.
An increase in user fees could be more costly for residents, with the treatment plant facilitating a more than $45 a month increase in water rates and the collection system costing another $8 a month.
If passed, a 2% sales tax would raise total sales taxes assessed by the town to 4%, and would be earmarked only for capital water improvement in town. The tax would not apply to groceries, some farm equipment and certain heavy-duty equipment — the same exceptions to the town’s current 2% sales tax.
While the tax would double what Yampa assesses in town, it would still be one of the lowest sales taxes assessed by a municipality in Routt County and one of the few that doesn’t apply to groceries. The tax would not sunset and hopes to be a sustainable source to make upgrades to the system when the new plant reaches its end of life in 40 to 50 years.
Joe Edwards, a member of the task force, closed the meeting by compelling his fellow residents to take the issue seriously.
“We, as the people that live here in this town, need to start taking a vested interest in what’s going on,” Edwards said. “I’ve heard comments about unincorporating, letting the county take care of it. Me personally, I don’t want the county to take over. I don’t want to lose an opportunity to be able to speak for myself.”
“Right now, we have that opportunity,” Edwards continued. “It’s going to be up to the people that are here right now, each and every one of us, to talk to the people in this town, talk to your neighbors … Let them know what kind of situation we’re in so that we can make sure that we can take care of ourselves. So there’s nobody else coming in here and shoving in down our throats and taking care of it, because I can guarantee you we ain’t going to like the result.”