EDITORIAL: City Council should hand off Utilities oversight to experts

By: The Gazette editorial
June 29, 2014 Updated: June 29, 2014 at 7:10 am
photo - The fire damage at the Drake Power Plant can be seen from entrance Tuesday, May 6, 2014. A fire ripped though Colorado Springs Utilities' coal power plant Monday morning.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
The fire damage at the Drake Power Plant can be seen from entrance Tuesday, May 6, 2014. A fire ripped though Colorado Springs Utilities' coal power plant Monday morning. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

What a mess. Local ratepayers have doled out tens of millions of dollars for an experimental scrubbing device at Drake Power Plant. The City Council raised rates to offset costs of a fire that shut the plant down. And, as the utility scrambles to repair Drake, public pressure mounts to close the facility for good - clean coal scrubbers and all.

Meanwhile, former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt - brought in last year as the savior-CEO of Neumann Systems Group's clean coal project - has fled to Kansas to run for his old congressional seat.

Closing Drake leaves the dilemma of replacing the capacity. Continuing to invest increasingly seems like good money chasing bad results, as the federal government plans to steadily intensify regulations designed to run coal plants out of business.

Worst of all, the council has no idea what to do. It has provided a dearth of leadership on this botheration for most of a decade.

The predicament emerged again Thursday when the council hosted a meeting on possible decommissioning of Drake. No resolution appeared in sight.

Even when council members hired an expensive engineering firm to study Drake's potential closure, they didn't ask for a recommendation. They should have. It doesn't take a genius to know the pitfalls of pouring big money into a plant that might not remain open for long. We need a good decision based in research and knowledge, not political fancy.

Complicating matters are environmentalists who aren't primarily concerned with costs and rates. Their worries of social, health and environmental tolls may be valid, but the costs are mostly theoretical, intangible or both.

Oddly allied with green activists are promoters of economic development, who believe the ugly old power plant undermines efforts to upgrade and grow downtown.

Defenders of Drake point to the costs ratepayers have incurred since fire disabled it. "This is what life looks like without Drake," they tell us. Of course, it's not that simple. Paying top dollar for natural gas on the spot market, to run backup generators, is not the same as making a long-term arrangement to buy fuel in bulk. It's also not the same as selling the community's electric market to a giant provider such as Xcel, which offers electric rates nearly identical to those of Colorado Springs Utilities.

Through a haze of political agendas, confusion and distortion, one thing is clear: We need better governance of the utility. The council has left us in a lurch.

Council members, who sacrifice absurd hours each week to provide legislative leadership of a large American city, are not experts in the complicated field of running a modern four-service utility.

If council members care deeply about this community, they will drop everything and propose a change in the way we govern the utility. They will ask November voters to follow the recommendation of the Utilities Policy Advisory Committee, which spent months in 2011 examining deficiencies of Utilities' governance.

"An independent board would have the time to focus on utility operations and provide additional oversight and guidance to utility operations," said Terri Carver, chairwoman of the advisory committee, after completing the study. "It aligns with the best practices at other successful, large public utilities."

The committee recommended having the mayor appoint members of the board, subject to confirmation by the council. The board - made up of professionals in utilities, finance, engineering and law - would consist of seven or nine members.

Council members have gone in circles on the Drake dilemma for years. It's time they lead by following advice they sought in 2011. Hand the utility off to a board that can make recommendations based on expertise, not emotion and politics. Stop doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

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