Saying they are fed up with high water bills, a group of residents kicked of a recall of three City Councilors and Mayor Herb Atchison Aug. 31.
Residents Jessica True, Gary Shea and Deb Teter filed four separate petitions aimed at unseating Atchison and City Councilors Anita Seitz, Kathryn Skulley and Jon Voelz.
“We’ve seen the water bills and some of them have just been so outrageous,” Shea said. “A lot of the people that are upset with this are just disappointed that the Councilors that voted for this increase just were not listening to their citizens’ concerns.”
The group has been behind two August water rate protests at Westminster City Hall, Aug. 24 and 31, that drew residents in their cars to honk their horns and flash their lights during City Council meetings to demonstrate that they were fed up.
“We saw the concern building on social media,” Shea said. “People were pretty upset at their water bills, and some were pretty outrageous. That frustration just built, to the point that we decided to seek a recall.”
The recall targets all voted to increase water and sewer rates for 2020. The three remaining Councilors — David DeMott, Rich Seymour and Lindsey Smith all voted against the increase.
Before COVID-19, councilors were discussing a rate increase for 2021 and beyond. The council voted to postpone discussions about that increase until next year, due to the pandemic.
Westminster’s 2020 water residential water rates increased roughly 10 percent per 1,000 gallons compared to 2019 while commercial rates increased between 6 and 10 percent depending on how much is used.
Currently, Westminster charges its lowest rate for residential customers that use less than 6,000 gallons per month. That rate increased from $3.57 per 1,000 gallons in 2019 to $3.96 in 2020.
Residential customers that use between 6,001 and 20,000 gallons per month now pay $8.15 per 1,000 gallons — up from $7.35 in 2019.
“My other concern is the supply we have,” Shea said. “I have heard city staff say that we just do not have enough water resources to get us to the complete build-out for what we have in the Comprehensive Plan, that there is no new water for us to purchase in the Denver Metro area. This is a fixed resource and we need to do a better job managing it.”
Customers that use more than 20,000 gallons per month pay the most, $12.88 per 1,000 gallons. That’s a $1.26 increase from the 2019 rate of $11.26 per 1,000 gallons.
Councilors are expected to schedule a series of meetings to discuss the water and sewer utilities later this year, including needs for repairs and new equipment, the water supply and water rates.
Seitz defends system
In a written statement, Councilor Seitz said she is frustrated by the recall because she is doing her duty and trying to stay within the rules set by the city’s charter and state law.
“Many have said they want to protect the safety and reliability of our system, but they don’t want to raise rates,” she wrote. “That would be my top choice too, however, we don’t have a magic wand.”
The city’s water utility is an enterprise find that can’t have more than 10% of its revenue from outside of water rates, meaning that the city cannot use general fund revenues to fund it.
“We are stuck with a system that is in critical need of repairs with very limited ways to pay for it,” she wrote. “My responsibility to the community is to ensure that we provide safe, dependable and reliable drinking water.”
She also defended Westminster’s tiered water rate system, noting it’s been used for 30 years as a way to make sure people who use the most water pay the most.
“It is really important to note that if those asking to remove the tier structure got their way, rates would have to go up for the people who remain in tier 1 and 2, and would go down for the super-users in tier 3,” Seitz wrote. “Finally, some claim that these rate increases are asking residents to subsidize development. That is simply not accurate. We needed rate increases to repair and replace aging infrastructure.”
Rather than going door-to-door to collect signatures, the group is scheduling collection events around the city, at local grocery stores, parks and members’ homes. They are updating the schedule and locations at https://www.facebook.com/westminsterwater on Facebook.
“We find a location, set up a table and just go,” he said. “Some of the people have been passionate enough to do driveway signings and have their neighbors come.”
Timing and rules
Westminster City Clerk Michelle Parker said the recall group has until the close of business Nov. 2 to file the necessary signatures.
To recall Atchison, the group needs to collect 25 percent of the total number of voted cast in the most recent mayoral election. That was 2017, when Atchison faced challengers Bruce Baker and Rich Seymour, and 20,034 ballots were cast. That means the recall effort needs to collect 5,009 signatures to recall Atchison.
The recall effort needs to collect 6,098 signatures apiece to recall the three City Councilors. That’s 25 percent of the 73,184 — the total ballots cast in the 2019 City Council race. Councilors Seitz, Seymour and Smith won their seats on the council in that election, out of a field of eight candidates.
Parker said her office has 15 days to review the signatures and verify that they are from registered Westminster voters once they have been submitted, and recall group has 15 days after that to submit replacement signatures and “cure“ the petition. The clerk then has another five days to review the petition signatures and declare the petition sufficient or not.
If the petition is sufficient, the recalled members of the City Council can either resign or the council must schedule a special election between 45 and 60 days from that date.