We have a city-owned municipal utility which has invested billions of in the construction of systems which divert, store, transport and distribute water from many sources to Colorado Springs.
We have one of the greatest park systems of any city in America, including landscaped medians, neighborhood parks, major parks, playing fields and magnificent tracts of open space.
We’re coming out of a severe recession, which so reduced city revenue that we can no longer afford to water many of our parks and medians.
Colorado Springs Utilities would love to help, but their bond covenants forbid them from doing so.
CSU has a public communications budget of more than $6 million annually, and has paid nearly $750,000 during the last two and half years to a Denver P.R. firm.
The P.R. firm’s job has been, at least in part, to sell Colorado Springs ratepayers on the vital necessity of raising water rates to pay for the Southern Delivery System.
Given these facts, you might wonder how a municipal utility system benefits us. Is there any difference between the publicly-owned enterprise and a private entity? Isn’t CSU just another old-fashioned monopolist, exploiting a captive market?
No, it isn’t. And yes, having a municipal utility is extraordinarily beneficial to our city.
But it may be time to make some changes.
CSU has done a remarkably good job of delivering water to a desert metropolis (that’s us), of building reliable, redundant systems to provide us with electricity and natural gas, and of expanding these systems to keep pace with growth. Its management is competent and public-spirited, and its policies and practices are for the most part laudable and progressive. The P.R. payments were arguably necessary to manage the stakeholder/public outreach process that resulted in the approval of SDS by elected officials in both Fremont and Pueblo County.
That said, CSU suffers from a layered, siloed management structure. The company is often defensive, legalistic and bureaucratic. In all my years of reporting on the enterprise, I can’t recall a single mea culpa, a single admission of error. They’re always right, and their critics are always ill-informed. They’re patient and helpful to those of us in the media, but stubbornly devoted to the company line. They can be remarkably deaf to public perceptions.
That’s why it’s so infuriating to see block after block of dried-up medians after one of the wettest winters since 1984. The “bond covenant” excuse doesn’t really hold water — creative management should have found a way to help the city and the city residents who are its customers.
Common sense tells me that an enterprise that spends millions on public communications understands how difficult it is for a government entity to build public trust. That trust is easily forfeited.
I’ve admired Utilities CEO Jerry Forte and his team for their success in permitting and launching the only major water diversion project of our era. Senior utilities executives have worked on the project for decades, in some case devoting much of their professional life to its successful conclusion. It’s an accomplishment that has eluded every other city in the region, and one that will resonate in Colorado Springs for generations to come.
Such success once seemed unlikely. It’s worth remembering that previous diversion projects during the 1980s and 1990s couldn’t be permitted, and had to be abandoned at considerable cost.
When CSU was divorced from the city by a 1995 referendum making the utilities director a council appointee, CSU effectively became a self-governing corporation. Once a month City Council trudges dutifully over to the company’s aerie on the upper floors of the Plaza of the Rockies and meets as the Utilities Board. The symbolism is telling. When the utilities director reported to the city manager, the meetings were held in council chambers.
Not one council member has any experience in the utilities business, nor has any member ever served on the board of a major company.
That may explain the board’s extraordinary passivity, which CSU’s managers have understandably encouraged. When I served on council, the then utilities director presented us with a book which was intended to guide us in our role as board members.
The book’s message: sit down, listen, and take the advice of your CEO!
That’s no longer good enough. This is a time for more accountable, more demanding, and less diffuse leadership. CSU needs to become more transparent, less convinced of its own infallibility, and less bureaucratic.
That may require a few changes in governance. And here’s a modest suggestion to city council: meet as the utilities board more frequently, and hold the meetings at City Hall. Let Forte walk from his office — after all, you’re the bosses.
Or are you?
John Hazlehurst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-227-5861. Watch him at 7:20 a.m. every Tuesday and Friday on Channel 3, Fox Morning News.