What's on Tap?

Welton Street isn't the only maintenance district facing problems. But while Welton Street's battles are internal, the major threat to other districts is coming from the outside. Specifically, from the Denver Water Board, which is contemplating charging a retroactive "tap fee" for water lines that were installed years ago.

Those fees could break the budgets of many of the districts, boardmembers complain.

In the older districts, explains Robert Montoya, maintenance-district coordinator for the Denver Department of Public Works, irrigation lines were put in to water trees the city was planting. At the time of each line's installation, the city told the water board that the line was for a city project, which meant the board couldn't bill the city--or anyone else--for the tap fee, a one-time cost assessed whenever a new water line is plugged into the existing water system. And not only did the city skip the tap fees for these new lines in maintenance districts, but the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation, which pays the monthly water bills for the lines, does so at a drastically reduced "municipal" rate.

Recently, though, in reviewing their water bills, Parks and Rec officials began wondering whether the maintenance districts were non-city entities and thus responsible for paying for their own water. They took their concerns to the Denver Water Board.

"Apparently the city applied for the taps, then the city had been paying the water bills," says Patricia Wells, the water board's legal counsel. "They looked around and said, 'We shouldn't be paying these bills.' It looks to me like they were taking over responsibility for things they shouldn't have."

Are the districts city entities? They are governed by city charter, their boardmembers are appointed by the mayor's office, and a representative from the Denver Department of Public Works sits on each board. But the districts are self-funded, Wells notes, and the city isn't closely involved in their operations.

Last month the water board sent letters to most of the city's nineteen maintenance districts, announcing that it was reconsidering its fee structures for the districts. Under consideration was not just the cost of current water usage; the board was also contemplating back-billing districts for the initial tap fees.

Those tap fees could put many of the districts under. The current charge for a three-quarter-inch tap is $5,740, according to literature sent by the water board to the maintenance districts. Several districts have two taps, for irrigating trees on both sides of the street, which would add up to a more than $11,000 hit.

"The letter came out of the blue," says Cyndi Kerins, of the 38th Avenue district. "The amounts were deadly. The tap fees would be killer for us. The fees would have exceeded our annual budget."

"When we talk about a tap fee, we're talking a lot of bucks," says Tony Gengaro, with the Phase II Broadway Pedestrian Mall district. "We told the city we expect them to pay for taps, and we'll pay for the water at the city's rate. The only people that are going to benefit is Denver Water."

Complaints from the districts have prompted the water board to reconsider its strategy. "We could go back and collect a tap fee, but I don't know that we'll do that," says Wells. "I don't know how many there are, and I don't know how much of a problem it is."

The water board is currently discussing the situation with the Denver City Attorney's Office.

Whatever those entities decide, it won't have much of an effect on Welton Street. The district doesn't have irrigation taps, so it didn't even get a letter from the water board. However, there's been some talk of allowing the district to use private-business taps to water trees or clean up sidewalks--and letting the businesses cover the costs.

There are three taps on the south side of the 2700 block of Welton, one of which is in a locked alley between the Five Points Plaza and Al Richardson's shop; there are none on the north side. In the 2600 block, there's a tap on both sides of the street, one in front of Deep Rock Water and another in front of McKinley Harris's realty office.

Richardson supports letting the district use those taps. "It's a benefit to every business to have these taps," he says. "Every person needs to rinse the front of their building. If somebody vomits out in front, you have to clean it off."

Of course Richardson would be for it, says Jones: "He don't pay no water bill, he don't pay no taxes."

Jones, on the other hand, plans to fight any attempt to plug into his tap--particularly if James Parker keeps the Welton Street contract. "If this guy is going to maintain the street," he says, "he has to use his own water."