Tens of thousands of Mesa County residents who paid millions of dollars to the Grand Valley Drainage District to manage storm water starting in 2016 — fees a judge ruled earlier this year were actually an illegally collected tax — will receive refunds in the mail, including additional interest payments on their money.

But don't hold your breath.

The process of full repayment will take three to six years, drainage district officials estimated Tuesday.

The agency spent roughly $2.2 million of that money on projects before it lost a lawsuit lodged by Mesa County commissioners and the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, and now the agency is legally required to pay residents back.

"We are going to pay people back," drainage district Manager Tim Ryan said in an interview following a two-hour meeting of the district's board of directors. "It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when."

A first payment should be mailed to residents late in the first quarter or early in the second quarter of 2019, Ryan said.

The district plans to make the first round of refunds the largest share of the dollars they owe residents, but officials haven't determined yet what percentage of the total refund owed that will be.

The district collected $7.1 million in fees from roughly 38,000 people after charging residential residents an average of $36 a year on properties over three years. Commercial land owners paid even more, amounts that varied based on their acreage.

District officials recently determined they owe residents $8.33 million. That refund amount will increase over time because the district must also pay residents 10 percent simple interest each year.

"We're going to pay as much as we can right now," drainage district board member Jim Grisier said after the meeting. "We have a goal to pay back the city (residents) as fast as we can but we don't have a mandate to say what day."

Another wrinkle in the refund plan unfurled during Tuesday's board meeting.

The district's attorney John Justus told board members the district must reimburse everyone the money they have already paid, even residents who indicated they want the district to keep their money.

The district will not receive those dollars if residents receive a refund check but never cash it. Instead, Justus said, those refund dollars would eventually end up in a state fund.

However, residents could send back the checks to the district as a donation, and the district could spend those dollars if the donations were not tied to a specific purpose.

District officials said Tuesday they would start the process of drafting a letter to residents explaining these details and the document will include the first round of refunds attached to the bottom of the letter.

The district saved about $500,000 this year, in part by trimming the number of employees who work in the field from 10 to seven. Current employees will receive 3 percent raises next year and the district aims to save 31 percent in its health care costs with a new health care plan.

Ryan said one bright spot for the agency is it projects to collect about $2 million in property taxes next year, the largest amount in years.

"If we get in a really, really dire situation we could sell some equipment," Ryan said. "I don't see us getting there."

The agency is paying back the money collected since 2016 after Mesa County District Judge Lance Timbreza ruled in June that the fee was actually a tax that was assessed without voter approval. According to the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, it must be paid back with interest.

Recommended for you