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PERA legal costs, wildfire funds, fracking, and more


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PERA legal costs mount

The city has paid two law firms $1.6 million so far to litigate a failed attempt to stiff the Public Employees' Retirement Association on pension obligations for city-owned Memorial Health System employees.

Hogan Lovells was hired in March 2013 and has been paid $1,575,889 through Jan. 28, according to city records.

The city's complaint that launched the case — stemming from the Oct. 1, 2012, lease of Memorial to University of Colorado Health — was filed in September 2012 by Hogan Lovells. The city claimed it owes PERA nothing for Memorial employees' retirement benefits after they were switched to UCH. PERA contended the city owes roughly $200 million, a figure that PERA says is growing with interest.

UCH paid the city $185 million specifically for the PERA liability, along with other amounts totaling $259 million to be used by a city-controlled health foundation.

In addition to the Hogan Lovells fees, Fulbright & Jaworski of St. Louis has been paid $46,652 for work on the PERA matter through Jan. 10, records show. That firm was paid an additional $1 million for legal work in setting up the lease documents.

On Feb. 10, retired District Judge Harlan Bockman ruled the city failed to follow state statute in removing Memorial's employees from PERA. The upshot: The city must pay, or appeal that ruling. A City Council decision is pending. — PZ

Wildfire funds on table

In his 2015 budget request to Congress, President Barack Obama has asked the government to fund wildfire suppression in essentially the same way that hurricane and tornado response is funded, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to exceed its budget using a special emergency account. The change would mean that the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior would no longer have to pay to fight wildfires when costs exceed their budget for suppression. It would also free up more money for the Forest Service to do mitigation work that can prevent fires in the first place.

The president's proposal is modeled after a 2013 Senate bill cosponsored by both Colorado senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet. The announcement is part of a series of changes meant to address climate change. A 2013 study by Forest Service researchers found that wildfires are expected to more than double in parts of the West by 2050. — JAS

Fracking on ballot?

Coloradans could block fracking in their communities even though state government allows it, under an amendment to the state constitution proposed by a coalition of environmental groups and others.

Local Control Colorado announced Monday that it has submitted the amendment to Colorado Legislative Legal Services, seeking approval to gather the 86,000 signatures it needs by August to place the measure on November's statewide ballot.

Another group, the Colorado Community Rights Network, announced seven weeks ago that it would launch a similar effort. The work of both groups comes after several communities, including Longmont, Broomfield and Boulder, have tried to ban fracking over the last two years, only to be thwarted by legal action or the threat of it by the state and oil and gas industries.

Sam Schabacker, one of the Local Control Colorado organizers, says recent polls have shown Coloradans would support such an amendment by 32 points. New air quality regulations passed by the state to limit methane emissions from the oil and gas industries are "weak," Schabacker adds, and show "we have no recourse but to take this into our own hands." — RM

Cañon City gets balloon fest

Hot air balloons will float above Cañon City over Memorial Day weekend, meaning that Colorado Springs Balloon Classic, Inc., will be running two festivals for the region this year. The other will be the 38th annual Colorado Balloon Classic in the Springs' Memorial Park on Labor Day weekend.

The Create Cañon City Balloon Classic will take place at the Winery at Holy Cross Abbey and feature six balloons — enough to get started sustainably, says Patsy M. Buchwald, CSBCI president. If this year's fest succeeds, Buchwald adds, they will at least double the number of balloons in 2015.

In last week's announcement, a Cañon City economic-development executive stated that if all goes well through 2015, "Fremont County will be able to compete for the Colorado Springs Classic." Reached by phone Monday, Buchwald — who last year hinted at pulling out of Colorado Springs over a fee dispute — downplayed the competition idea.

"Our goal is not to leave [the Springs]," she says. "But again, as business opportunities present themselves, our board of directors will certainly entertain all of those." — EA


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