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Woodmen Hills Metro District's woes continue

June 20, 2009

Things in Woodmen Hills Metro District are a mess, and it's hard to tell who's to blame.

In the past eight months, three of five board members resigned and were replaced by appointment. Another is under recall. A leading critic has been barred from the district's office by a restraining order after being accused of threatening to "blow (the board) away" with an AK-47.

Residents are angry about the district chief's $130,000 salary and possible rate hikes to pay for services, including water, wastewater, park and recreation and streetlights.

Such unrest threatened to sabotage efforts to refinance debt and save money, district officials say.

"If this loose cannon keeps going around, if the perception is that this is going toxic because of recalls, the bondholders could place this district in receivership," district manager Larry Bishop said in an interview last week.

That loose cannon, he said, is Ron Pace, a disabled veteran and technical school student who packs a six-inch stack of documents he says  proves he's right.

His nemesis is Jan Pizzi, board president, who says she's dedicated to making Woodmen Hills a good place to live but is being recalled in a campaign led by Pace.

The trouble started last year when the board began looking at refinancing $16 million in debt to save $6 million over six years. The deal requires approval by all 120 bondholders. Without a deal, the district would double service fees, Bishop said.

The district's financial woes are tied to the economic downturn. With few houses being built, fewer people share the burden of repaying the bonds, issued to build infrastructure. The 14-year-old district, which serves 2,296 homes, also is wrangling with other districts over shared facilities, such as a sewage plant.

Residents are upset that the May 2008 election, when Pizzi was elected, drew only 120 voters in a district El Paso County officials say has 4,000 voters. Bishop said the district advertised the election in the newspaper and noted it on board agendas and billings.

Talk of money problems led residents to comb the budget and discover Bishop's pay - the region's highest among district managers.
Pizzi initially promised to lower salaries but later supported employees' pay. "He (Bishop) deserves his money," she said in an interview.

But Pace keeps pushing, prompting the district to create a Pace file.

"Of course I have a file on Pace," Bishop said. "Every e-mail he's ever done and every threat he's ever made. If someone threatened you, would you keep a file on them, in case someone finds my body with a .38 between my eyes?"

With plans for a recall percolating, about 40 residents attended the Nov. 20 board meeting, which "deteriorated into shouting from the public directed at board members," the minutes state.

At that meeting, district officials contend, Pace threatened to use an AK-47 to  "blow these people away." The minutes don't mention the threat, and Pace said nine people swear he didn't say that. Bishop counters the statement was made but not loud enough for all to hear.

Within days, three board members resigned and others were appointed. Pace applied but didn't get past the first question about covenants. He isn't a fan, but he disputes that he's harmed the district.

"They're trying to discredit the person who is the biggest threat to them," he said in an interview.
The district also recently hired a local PR firm for $35,000 "to market our community to the bondholders during refinancing negotiations," he said.

It's important to keep Pace and his followers in check, Bishop said, so as not to chase away developers.

"Is it better to build in Meridian Ranch, because you don't have people running around with pitchforks and torches?" Bishop said.
Meantime, things have calmed after Bishop announced Thursday the refinancing is on track, meaning no fee hikes for two years.

But not everything is settled. If election officials uphold the recall petition's sufficiency later this month, an election will be mandatory.

Call the writer at 636-0238

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