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Community deserves intense scrutiny of rate hike proposal

By: The Gazette editorial
October 17, 2013 Updated: October 17, 2013 at 5:11 pm
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Downtown Colorado Springs from the west on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

City Council, don't assume public trust when it comes to the big rate hikes proposed in the billion-dollar-plus budget of Colorado Springs Utilities. It's only appropriate for members of our community to demand vigilant oversight - even if Councilman Joel Miller doesn't think they should.

Everywhere we turn in this struggling economy, hard-working Americans are told to give more. Advocates of an education tax want Colorado families to pay $133 more in taxes next year. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act drives up health insurance premiums and forces young healthy earners to pay more for care of others.

So, it's a big deal - an enormous burden - when Colorado Springs Utilities asks for rate hikes that will cost the average user more than $112 a year on top of everything else.

Council members should review the $1.15 billion Utilities budget in great depth in their role as board of directors for this city-owned enterprise. Even more so than they do the mayor's proposed $245.6 million general fund budget - a budget for which they have a less direct oversight role.

Without asking taxpayers for an additional dime, the proposed general fund budget anticipates 27 new cops, more wildfire mitigation, more bus service and an additional $4 million for road and bridge repair. The proposal cuts 96 nonpublic safety positions and adds 49 public safety employees.

The general fund proposal slashes waste while adding personnel and services essential to taxpayers. Nevertheless, council members are doing their due diligence and scrutinizing the budget line by line in painstaking detail. They're looking out for constituents.

During the council's budget work session Monday, Councilwoman Jill Gaebler requested more detail about the Police Department budget after Chief Pete Carey gave a 90-minute-plus presentation. In a follow-up email to Chief Financial Officer Kara Skinner, Gaebler demanded: "Expenses for divisions and bureaus within the Police Department"; "Departmental expenses within divisions . "; and "Itemized expenses for the many items you listed regarding the 'multiple lines for trending costs.'?"

Councilman Val Snider wanted a cost analysis on the mayor's security. Miller demanded details about cop cars.

Miller's strident questioning led Laura Neumann, the mayor's chief of staff, to ask how much time Colorado Springs Utilities spent presenting budget information to the council. The question annoyed Miller, who admonished Neumann by saying her inquiry was "not an appropriate question."

Yes, Councilman, it was appropriate, and all ratepayers should thank Neumann for asking. The council wants detailed information about patrol cars and security guards in a budget that's less than a quarter the size of the Utilities budget. The budget council members examine line by line asks for no new money and provides more public safety and better roads and bridges.

Meanwhile, the council's own Utilities budget - more than four times the size of the general fund - demands an additional $112 a year from Springs households without promise of additional services. Nothing could be more inappropriate than suggesting we all shut up and accept rate hikes without question.

The public needs more scrutiny and explanation before it accepts such an increase.

The City Council has sole oversight of Colorado Springs Utilities. It's an enterprise that has provided good customer service, reliable power and consistently competitive rates. Due to recent trends, and with this latest proposed rate hike, we need to analyze even further this operation and what the next five years of rates will look like. We continue to own our local utility because it has afforded us lower-than-market rates. But we need to ensure the arrangement continues as an advantage to the community.

Before imposing higher rates, Miller and other council members should look for and eliminate inefficiencies and waste. If they can scrutinize security guards, they can at least ask hard questions about the marketing and public relations expenditures of their monopolized utility.

Thank you, council members, for analyzing the general fund. Just assure us you'll give proportionately more scrutiny to a much larger budget that seeks more blood, sweat and tears from ratepayers who barely get by.

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