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OUR VIEW: At Utilities, buck stops with no one (poll)

By: ed
December 4, 2012
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The highest-ranking public relations employee at Colorado Springs Utilities, Sherry Newell, earns at least $177,382 a year — a figure that does not include benefits and pension contributions made by the city. Mayor Steve Bach’s administration estimates Newell’s full compensation package at $195,000. Either way, it’s a hefty wage for an information employee in a city-owned enterprise that is supposed to operate at minimal cost to ratepayers.

The wage, highlighted Tuesday in a mass email by Councilman Tim Leigh, is raising eyebrows in the executive branch of local government.

“This reinforces the need for Colorado Springs Utilities to be more transparent,” Bach said. “I just received my utility bill. Included with the bill was a four-page, full-color marketing brochure. But this is a monopoly. I have no choice but to do business with them, so why do we spend all of this money trying to convince people to do business with them?”

Bach hopes City Council will demand a simple and thorough breakdown of how Utilities spends ratepayer money.

“The Council recently spent 90 minutes reviewing a $1.2 billion budget for Utilities. Only two Council members had questions,” Bach said. “That’s the level of scrutiny and oversight this utility receives and I think it is inadequate.”

Springs Utilities is run by the Colorado Springs City Council, when it pretends to convene as board of directors for the public enterprise. Though Utilities pays a lot of six-figure salaries, Council/Utilities board members each earn a $6,250 annual stipend. Bach, a full-time employee, earns $96,000 a year — roughly $100,000 less than the ranking communications employee at Utilities.

Utilities CEO Jerry Forte said the enterprise is conducting a wage assessment to determine whether salaries are competitive. He insists Utilities has nothing to hide and will provide whatever public information anyone asks for.

The fuss about Newell’s salary comes on the heels of an exposé in Sunday’s Gazette that showed Utilities spent more than $8.3 million on outside marketing and public relations firms in the past five years, despite maintaining a 21-person in-house public affairs department.

“They like to tell us this department distributes life-saving information about carbon monoxide poisoning and fallen power lines,” Leigh said. “I think it’s mostly political action disguised as public relations.”

We only know that Utilities offers good rates and service despite a flawed governing structure. Ultimately, the buck stops with no one. It stops with nine part-time, volunteer Council members who have nothing to lose.

Our mayor may be outraged by one or more salaries at Springs Utilities. He may question the monopoly’s marketing costs. But the city’s top executive can do nothing about these concerns, because he lacks the authority. It is time for Forte, the City Council, the mayor and Colorado Springs voters to change this. Our mayor needs authority over city enterprises, which are owned and funded by the public. We need one elected official to credit and/or blame for decisions at our public utility.

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