Columns » Ranger Rich

New definition of 'bonus'


Every year, the Mount Rushmore figures we elect to City Council gather in a small room to talk pay hike and bonus for the boss of city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities. Each year, when the meeting ends, council members open the door after pulling violently on the handle just below the sign that says "push" and announce the Utilities CEO will get a big fat bonus.

It doesn't matter what he's done. Payment of the annual big fat bonus is a natural occurrence, like the aspens turning yellow or another mountain pine beetle boring into Mayor Lionel Rivera's head.

Take our former Utilities CEO, Phil "If God Didn't Want Me To Be Rich Why Did He Make $600 Neckties?" Tollefson. He screwed the village out of millions of gallons of water in the summer of 2002 during the worst drought in Colorado's history by secretly funneling it to his buddies at The Broadmoor, which used the gift to water its golf courses. And by water, I mean that on Aug. 12 that year, a Japanese boat harpooned a gray whale just off the No. 5 tee.

Tollefson is gone now, thankyouJesus, but he spent the final years of his dictatorship grooming a replacement. Now we have, well, let's just say there hasn't been transition of power like this since The Wizard of Oz, when the house fell on one of the sisters.

His name is Jerry Forte. He's been CEO since late 2005. Before that he was chief operating officer, and before that the GFSWRNH (Guy From Sterling With Really Nice Hair). Sterling, by the way, is on the Colorado plains, about halfway between Limon and 1938. Forte was city engineer, which involved putting on a conductor's hat, running out to the crossing and shouting "Whooooo, whoooo-whooooo" when the train came through.

Our police and fire chiefs each make about $150,000 a year. The director of our village airport is paid $140,000 a year (more if a plane from here ever goes anywhere but Denver or Dallas). The city manager makes $210,000. But with the annual bonus, Forte is just a notch shy of $300,000. Here's what he's done to earn the big bucks:

He has continued Utilities' tradition of dumping human waste into Fountain Creek and eventually downstream to our friends in Pueblo, which is a Spanish word meaning, literally, "Peewwwww." So rampant is the dumping that Utilities has been hit with $270,000 in fines in recent years for violating the federal Clean Water Act. The Sierra Club has sued, seeking fines up to $32,500 a day. In 2006, there were 60 documented sewage spills into the creek. Last year, stinking filth surged into the river just 33 times. (This would cause the people in Pueblo to shout "Yippee!" except shouting like that might knock the clothespins off their noses.)

From Pueblo City Councilman Lawrence Atencio: "They gave Jerry Forte a $27,000 bonus? For what?"

Forte also approved a travel policy for employees that was apparently put together by monkeys, allowing a 20-month travel bill of $5.2 million.

In an organization with 10 executives earning more than $100,000 a year, Forte spent $300,000 for a study about "career aspirations, areas of passion and signature strengths." He paid $400 an hour to the firm for almost two years. The study identified Forte's own "signature strength" as the one he put on the consultant's $3,200-a-day paycheck.

Meanwhile, Forte authorized a larger payout of $385,000 to Huron Consulting Group in Chicago to assess, well ... let's have Utilities chief customer officer Kelly Means, one of the over-$100,000 executives, take a whack at explaining it: "The way I look at the report is that we have taken a very proactive approach to determine how can we best manage our costs over the long term and in a sustainable manner and what kinds of things might we need to apply in this toolbox of things they have offered in the study."

OK then. (For a minute there, I thought the $385,000 had been wasted.)

But here's my favorite: A Utilities cashier stands accused of stealing $435,000 from under the nose of Utilities and its 10 brilliant, big-paycheck executives. During the time suspect Donna Inzer, who had a $55,000 salary, was allegedly stealing the money, guess what Forte did?

He gave her $11,956. In bonuses.

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