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Paonia Mayor Explains the Condition of the Streets in Town

Anyone familiar with Paonia knows that the streets are in bad shape, especially along one four-block stretch on Third Street between Grand Avenue and the public library.

It’s not only the streets that are bumpy in Paonia. The last year has been an up-and-down ride for Paonia’s mayor. From the BLM’s decision to offer and then withdraw lease parcels in the North Fork, to the guilty plea entered by the town’s former employee for embezzling some $400,000 from the public coffers, there has been no shortage of drama. But what about the streets?

Paonia mayor Neal Schwieterman had a few things to say about them. “Third Street is torn up because there was a very old sewer line under it, and that sewer line at some point in time sagged,” he said.  “And when it sagged – it was clay, it broke. And then it was scoured out, so we actually had several sections scoured out, where there was no sewer line. And so that’s an emergency fix, and it is repaired. It was identified in December and it’s completely repaired now.”

The street above it is another story.

According to Schwieterman, “The story about streets, and this is affecting everyone across the country, is that the cost has gone up to repair and pave streets, while the recession has income flat or negative, and those curves actually started separating a long time ago, about when our library was built, about five years ago, there was a spike in construction cost, particularly the asphalt, you know, the petrochemical end of things. And it never went back to its old norm. We used to be able to afford to pave three blocks of streets per year, now we can’t even afford to pave one block with the same amount of money.”

In the old days, before Paonia’s streets were paved at all, the town’s water truck sprayed twice a day to keep the dust down. But there are better uses for our water, and other solutions have to be considered.

“One option,” says Schwieterman “is to cut square sides and patch it. A second one is to prep it and repave that whole street for that portion. That bid is in and it’s exorbitant. And the third option is to cut out the remaining asphalt and concrete it. Asphalt has a life expectancy in Colorado at our elevation of 8-10 years, usually more on the 8 side. Concrete lasts 25 or 30. The stretches of Second Street that we have concreted are 28 years and counting.”

Then there are the sidewalks…many cracked and heaving, some dangerous. Several years ago the town asked residents whether they were willing to spend $3 more dollars per household per month for a sidewalk fund. Voters said no.

“It didn’t pass,” says Schwieterman “and neither did any tax or fee increase in the entire state of Colorado, because nobody had the money. So council backed off, the citizens voted they didn’t want to do it. But those roots continue getting bigger and the cliffs on our sidewalks continue getting worse, and it’s become a much more egregious safety situation.”

So the current council directed staff to start addressing the worst situation sidewalks. The town’s entire infrastructure is especially vulnerable and complicated because of the characteristics of its soil and geology.

“The town of Paonia sits on the alluvial area from the North Fork River,” Schwieterman explains “ and so the soils are less than perfect, and they expand and contract as they become wet and dry, and water tables move up and down. In fact our town park is there because it was untenable for housing. They actually added top fill and put in all those wonderful trees because the water table was so close to the surface. They made really nice lemonade out of those lemons.”

“But that same situation happens all around town. Our sewer treatment facility is further down valley, and the sewer system has to deliver sewage under the river. So when you’re near the river the sewer pipes are 23 feet deep. That’s an expensive thing.”

These are the predicaments facing Paonia’s six town council members.

Schweiterman says, “There is no right or wrong, you just have to make your best guess about what will have the most long term benefit for the greatest number of people, and is the most cost-effective.”

The final outcome of Paonia’s financial loss isn’t yet decided. The former employee will be sentenced June 24 and then the Town will file for the insurance. But it could be capped at $150,000 – well short of the amount stolen.“Very, very unfortunate circumstance, Schwieterman says. “It just is. But the fact is that well before I was ever here and you were ever here, the community leaders were quite thrifty. And we have a pretty decent reserve. Starting this year we have a reserve of over a year of funding. So that is exceptional. General accounting principles say you should have three months reserve, so we have more than four times that …where that could get eaten up is in street repairs.”

Marty Durlin contributes freelance news features, including coverage of Delta County Commissioner's meetings and local governmental issues.