County commissioners reject changes for Woodmen Hills district

December 15, 2011

El Paso County Commissioners rebuffed an attempt by the Woodmen Hills Metropolitan District board to enact major changes in the way it raises money, deals with covenants, finances projects and performs other services for the nearly 2,300 households within its boundaries.

The commissioners rejected the board’s proposal for an amended “service plan” that would have given it the authority to ask Woodmen Hills residents for their first-ever mill levy and weigh in on whether they want enforcement of covenants. Despite assurances from the five-member district board that no taxes would be imposed or covenants enforced without a vote, the commissioners said there were too many unknowns in the plan.

“These issues have not been worked out,” said Commissioner Amy Lathen, who represents the eastern El Paso County district that includes Woodmen Hills. “There are too many questions that the citizens of Woodmen Hills have yet to be answered.”

The commissioners’ decision came on a 3-1 vote after hours upon hours of comments from residents, not only on Thursday but when the service plan proposal first came before the board in October. Commissioner Dennis Hisey opposed the motion to reject the plan.

Most comments centered on the issue of covenants and who, if anyone, should enforce them.

The district has had covenants since the mid-90s, but different areas, or filings, have different sets of covenants. And some areas of Woodmen Hills have homeowners associations to enforce the covenants, while others don’t.

In 2009, a judge stopped the district from enforcing covenants, but the procession of residents against the new service plan recounted what they called “horror stories” from the past. District board members said they wouldn’t be the ones deciding whether to resurrect enforcement of covenants; residents in each filing would get to vote on the issue.

When it appeared likely that the covenant issue would derail the entire service plan, the district board agreed late Thursday to remove it. But that wasn’t enough to persuade the commissioners to approve the rest of the plan.

Lathen and the other commissioners were concerned that the plan didn’t specify whether passage of a mill levy would take the place of the fee structure that provides the district with its money.

District board president Jan Pizzi said the board wouldn’t double the financial load on residents.

“If we get a mill levy, the service fees would drop,” she said.

Pizzi and the other board members are trying to sell the mill levy as a win-win for the district and its residents. It would make it easier for the district to obtain low-interest bonds, and residents could write it off on their taxes, which they can’t do with fees.

But residents seemed to think that they’d have to pay fees on top of a mill levy, and would be hit with higher payments at a time when the economy is still struggling, although district manager Larry Bishop said a vote on a mill levy probably wouldn’t take place until at least 2014.

The service plan also would have allowed the district to raise its maximum debt cap, but Pizzi said the board wouldn’t reach for the limit.

“People think if (commissioners) vote in favor of the service plan, we’ll go right out and borrow $57 million,” she said.

Pizzi said she and her colleagues would go “back to the drawing board” to figure out their next step, but the same issues will be facing the district, including the need for a new wastewater treatment plant and drainage projects.

Contact Barbara Cotter: 636-0194
Twitter @barbaracotter
Facebook Gazette Barbara Cotter

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