Palmer Lake residents divided on lake solution

By Jane Reuter
The Gazette/The Slice
Published January 12, 2005

Palmer Lake residents have a common mission—to refill their town’s namesake. How to do it is the question that threatens to divide them.

A $2-a-month water bill surcharge passed by the Palmer Lake Town Board last month to refill the lake isn’t the answer, many say. The proposed fee garnered so much controversy the board opted not to assess it in January, as planned. It may never take effect, Mayor Nikki McDonald said.

Several residents believe soliciting donations would be as successful now as it was during a 1995 lake restoration effort.

The 10-acre lake has shrunk to little more than a series of puddles during the last three years, taking its most dramatic dip in 2004. The town board hired Colorado Springs geotechnical engineering firm CTL Thompson to find out why the lake is disappearing; a member of the firm is scheduled to talk to the board about its findings during Thursday’s 7:00 p.m. meeting.

The board unanimously agreed to assess the $2-a-month fee to its 900 water customers’ bills at the suggestion of a citizen’s committee dedicated to refilling Palmer Lake.

Committee leader Jeff Hulsmann said the group wanted to include an opt-out clause so no one would feel forced to pay, but the board approved an ordinance allowing only hardship exemptions.

The fee aroused the ire of several residents, who said they felt blindsided by it and question its legality. They met with Hulsmann last week, who said he’d take their thoughts back to other members of the Awake the Lake committee.

Those who object to the fee told Hulsmann their beef was with the town board, not the committee.

“What I object to is the methodology,” said Palmer Lake resident D. Davidson, calling the fee taxation without representation. “Once you set this precedent, where does it stop? Are we going to get charged $5 a month for new fire truck? $10 a month to decorate (the town clerk’s) office?”

“You know the citizens of this community would not vote to increase their taxes. If it were presented as a tax increase or bond issue, I doubt it would have passed.”

Hulsmann said his group never intended to spark controversy.

“The lake committee is a bunch of really good people,” he said. “We’re not political. We don’t want to be political. We don’t want to take money from people who don’t want to participate. My goal here is to get water in the lake; that’s my only goal.”

Town attorney Larry Gaddis, who drafted the ordinance assessing the surcharge, said he thinks it’s legal.

“The water system in Palmer Lake is an enterprise (fund),” he said. “And as such, it has flexibility and can do things that the town generally can’t do.”

Gaddis compared it to the Colorado Springs streetlight fee which was challenged in El Paso County Commissioner Douglas Bruce but deemed legal.

“I don’t see this situation is very different from that,” Gaddis said. “My opinion [is] that we did not act improperly and that, in fact, the town has the power to do what it did.”

McDonald wasn’t willing to take a chance.

“If there’s any chance it is illegal, we’re not going to do it,” she said.

The mayor said she prefers raising the money through donations.

Two residents who helped spearhead the 1995 lake restoration effort said the group collected $144,000 in donations and grants. That enabled them to dredge the lake and remove some of the vegetation that threatened to choke it. Volunteers restored the lake’s fountain, added a dock and improved the park along the shore. But all their work drained away with the lake.

“We thought we’d handled the problem, but the drought came,” said Dale Platt, one of the leaders of the five-year lake restoration effort.

Platt suggested last week the town insert a donation request with water bills. The town could erect a lakeside billboard charting the fund-raising progress, he suggested. Similar techniques worked in the 90s, Platte said, and he believes they could work again.

The Town of Palmer Lake has no right to store water in the lake. For many years, it augmented the lake supply with water from two reservoirs in the mountains above the town, but state water officials said that’s illegal.

Hulsmann said he thinks the town can pump water from its well to fill the lake, but McDonald said that’s risky.

“What if we use all the water in the well to replenish the lake and this summer we run out?” she said.

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