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Play dead and roll over


"[Politics is] the conduct of public affairs for private advantage."

-- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911.

"Practical politics consists in ignoring facts."

-- Henry Adams, Education, 1907.

How 'bout those old white guys? Nearly a hundred years ago, they had Colorado Springs city government all figured out. Somehow, I don't think they'd be at all surprised by the current state of affairs, easily summarized in three sentences, to wit:

The City Council makes far-reaching land-use and development related decisions.

For many decades, the real-estate industry has used every weapon in its arsenal to influence those decisions, including grooming candidates for Council, funding and managing their campaigns, and marginalizing opposition.

Since the mid-'70s, City Council has been, apart from a couple of brief lapses, a wholly owned subsidiary of the real-estate industry.

Argue all you want, but the fact is that every substantial land-use/development decision made by Council since then has been developer-friendly. Compared to other jurisdictions, our land-use regulations are extraordinarily lax, and our enforcement of those regulations is spotty at best.

But so what? Maybe ours is just a conservative, business-friendly community that's inherently suspicious of regulators, and Council is doing what we want.

That's true, as far as it goes. If you own a piece of ground, you'd like to be able to do what you please with it, within reason. You'd want the city to have and enforce clear, simple and rational building/zoning codes, with a minimum of bureaucratic delay and pettifoggery.

Most of us would agree. But few of us would agree that new home builders should receive a direct governmental subsidy, perhaps amounting to as much as $30,000 per house, to be paid by taxpayers and utility customers. But through a complicated series of policies, policy decisions and non-decisions throughout the years, that's exactly what's happening.

Here's how it works. When you, as a builder/developer, start the development process, you have to pay a variety of fees to compensate government for the cost of providing services to a new house. In the case of utilities, those fees amount to about $11,000 per house, which sounds like a lot.

Unfortunately, it's not -- it's a lot less than the actual cost. That's because additional customers eventually create the need to expand system capacity, and that ain't cheap.

For example, our projected new water delivery system, including the Pueblo pipeline, new reservoirs, and pumps to move the water uphill from Pueblo, may cost (including the cost of financing) over $2 billion. And then we'll need more wastewater treatment capacity, and at some point we'll need more electrical generating capacity, and of course a bigger system means that maintenance becomes ever more expensive ... you get the picture.

So how much would developers/new homeowners pay if we existing ratepayers no longer absorb part of the cost? Opinions differ, and Colorado Springs Utilities itself has offered varying cost estimates. Clearly, none of the power players-developers, elected officials, utilities administrators are ready to embrace the big numbers that some activists are throwing around. But it's a large sum -- at least $30,000 per house and maybe as much as $55,000.

If current practices continue, we, as ratepayers, will be paying an increasingly steep price for utility services, just to finance growth, mainly on the city's eastern borders. That's the hidden "development tax" that Council can, despite the city charter and the state constitution, impose without a vote. It's hidden in plain sight -- part of your utility bill. How much is it? Again, it's hard to quantify -- lots of dependent variables -- but it may be that ratepayer-funded system expansion costs the average household as much as it pays in city sales tax.

This whole discussion is now a public one. The Utilities Policy Advisory Committee, a Council-appointed group, is charged with reviewing current system extension policies and has begun holding public meetings this month. There have been two already; the third and final workshop is on April 22, and UPAC will make a final presentation to Council on May 19.

This issue is, potentially, a car bomb parked in front of City Hall, which Council desperately wants to defuse. Look for a small fee increase, a lot of smoke and mirrors, and assertions by the real-estate industry that policy change equals economic catastrophe. They'll certainly prevail; just as you know that your gentle, well-trained Labrador retriever won't bite the neighbor's kid, real-estate honchos know that Council members will do what they're trained to do.

Like good dogs, they'll roll over, woof and wait for a biscuit.

Will they get it? More next week ...


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