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Enterprises: threatened species

City Sage



The barbarians are at the gate — and that may not be a bad thing.

In two months, Colorado Springs voters will elect a new mayor and seven City Councilors. Since only two incumbents (Sean Paige and Jan Martin) are seeking re-election, it's absolutely certain that five of nine Council members will be newbies. And unless either Richard Skorman or Tom Gallagher makes it to the corner office at City Hall, we'll have a wet-behind-the-ears mayor.

If Colorado Springs were, say, Woodland Park or Manitou Springs, we wouldn't have to worry. But we're a sprawling, unruly mega-suburb, a polycentric metropolis now dominated by beige houses and big boxes. There are close to 600,000 of us, and we love our Double Dougs (Lamborn and Bruce), our new-time religion and our right-wing politics.

This city has been blessed since its founding by cautious leaders. Hardheaded mayors from John Robinson to Andy Marshall to Bob Isaac haven't cared about ideology. They've been interested in the efficient operation of the city and its enterprises.

For more than a century, Colorado Springs city government has fought off the radical right's raids and incursions. Reason and rationality have prevailed — but it's possible that reason and rationality now call for the radical restructuring of the city enterprise system.

Together, the mayor and Council run, control and determine policy for governmental and quasi-governmental entities that directly employ thousands. The city itself, dwarfed by its sprawling enterprises, is a relatively minor player.

Stripped to its essentials, the city has three functions: public safety/regulatory enforcement, transportation and parks. Only the first is indispensable. As we've found out, life goes on whether or not parks are watered and potholes filled.

But close Memorial Health System? Shut down Colorado Springs Utilities? The city would literally cease to function.

Defending the city's enterprise system has remained a central tenet of Council majorities for decades. The risks of dismantling the system have always seemed great, while the rewards have seemed slight.

That equation may have changed. It's easy to imagine a new mayor joining with a Council majority (led by Paige, Bruce and Ed Bircham?) to create policy privatizing all or part of the enterprises.

But divesting Memorial may be a zero-sum game, even if the Public Employees' Retirement Association's cost estimate of exiting the retirement system is overblown. Patty Jewett can't be sold or privatized, because if the city violates the covenants of that gift, title reverts to descendants of the donor.

As for cemeteries, Springs natives have a dog in that fight. For example, five generations of my family are buried in Evergreen Cemetery. If the city tries to renege on its promise of "maintenance in perpetuity" and sell the bones of my ancestors to Costas Rombocos ... let's move on, shall we?

That leaves Utilities, the once-impregnable citadel of enterprises. Utilities generates much power from two aging coal-fired plants. It's unlikely that either plant will be retired or converted to natural gas in the foreseeable future. That's because Utilities customers would have to absorb the entire cost of building new plants and shutting down obsolete ones. Larger utilities, as investment adviser Roger Conrad noted two years ago, "...can spread system costs less onerously, since they have more people to bill. That makes it politically easier ... to get the job done."

That fact, as well as anticipated costs of complying with new emissions mandates, is driving a spate of mega-mergers in the utility business.

Electric generation is a scale business — and we're the neighborhood hardware store competing with Wal-Mart.

Suppose Council sent the voters a proposal to sell electrical generation to the highest bidder? Rates might rise modestly over time, but such a deal would offer many long-term benefits, including converting the Nixon plant to natural gas, and shuttering the downtown Drake plant. It would clear the way for the long-anticipated redevelopment of southwest downtown, and even lead to the migration of coal trains to other lines, leaving the way open for Front Range passenger rail.

Our air less polluted, our carbon footprint reduced, and our Councilors taking industry-financed junkets to Hawaii ... roll on, righties!

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