Updated: September 21, 2012 at 12:00 am
The inventor of an emissions control technology caught in the cross hairs of a heated debate about the future of Colorado Springs Utilities is threatening to move his 60-employee company out of the city.
“Bottom line is, I’ve had it,” physicist David Neumann said Friday.
“We’re going to start looking for other opportunities to move the business if this thing doesn’t get settled in really short order,” he said. “The abusive comments — that’s the wrong word — the derogatory comments made by (City Councilman) Tim Leigh and prompted, I guess by the mayor as I understand it from Tim, are just unacceptable.”
For several months, Leigh has criticized Neumann and his technology, both in public forums and in his electronic newsletter.
Leigh flatly denied that Mayor Steve Bach prompted him “in any way, shape or form.”
“I am not a kept man of the mayor. I am my own man,” he said. “My assertions are my assertions and nobody has ever questioned the accuracy of any of my statements.”
Leigh also took a dig at Neumann, saying he’d like to know what kind of financial impact Neumann and his company have had on the Colorado Springs economy.
“What he’s basically done is be a research and development business funded with ratepayer dollars,” Leigh said. “He’s not bringing new money to Colorado Springs yet. For him to take the assault on me, as I have said previously, it fans the flame of my deeply held suspicions to whether or not his experimental technology is going to solve anybody’s financial problem.”
Utilities spokeswoman Patrice Lehermeier said the utility believes that if Neumann moved his company it would create only “logistical issues” and that the installation of the scrubber technology at the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant downtown would continue.
“At first blush, we don’t believe this would have a heavy impact on our agreement with Neumann Systems,” she said.
“The way we look at it is it would be more of an impact to economic vitality because you would have an innovative, cutting-edge employer who would take his business elsewhere. So, that would be more of a loss to the community than to the agreement itself,” she said.
Neumann’s threat capped a tumultuous week for the city-owned utility.
Things got off to a rousing start Monday when Leigh questioned whether Utilities CEO Jerry Forte should get the boot over Neumann’s $73.5 million cost-plus contract.
On Wednesday, the Utilities Board caved in to community pressure and decided to move ahead with a study of decommissioning Drake rather than waiting until next year.
On Thursday, developer Steve Schuck held a private meeting to gather information about selling the electric side of the utility, among other topics. Del Hock, former CEO of Public Service Company of Colorado, now a part of Xcel Energy, and Bill Vidal, who served as Denver mayor for about six months after John Hickenlooper was elected governor, were invited to speak at the invitation-only gathering. Bach, Leigh and Councilman Merv Bennett were among the attendees. Wayne Laugesen, editorial page editor of The Gazette, was also in attendance.
“The entirety of the meeting was spent asking questions and learning without any determination by anybody about what to do,” Schuck said.
“It was simply an exercise in information gathering that I think was proved out to be very, very constructive,” he said.
The meeting ignited a fiery exchange between Schuck and Hente after Schuck was quoted saying that he called the meeting because council members are “sitting on their asses doing nothing.”
“Sometimes we do things the public likes. Sometimes we do things they don’t like,” Hente said Friday.
“But to say that we’re sitting on our ass and doing nothing, I found that comment extremely offensive,” he added. “I think Mr. Schuck can run for council and then he can find out what it’s like to not sit on his ass and then we can have a discussion.”
Hente also took a jab at Bach, saying the four-service utility is under the purview of council, not the mayor. The council serves as the Utilities Board.
“The mayor has the right as any citizen in this community does to express his opinions about any of the services that our municipality provides. However, he tells me on a very frequent basis that some things are the responsibility of the executive branch of this community,” Hente said.
“You know what? I respect that, so if some things are the responsibility of the executive branch of this community, then some things are the responsibility of the legislative branch of this community, and Utilities is one of them,” he said. “So, I guess what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
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