Who’ll turn on the lights?

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Colorado regulators have agreed to a compromise between environmentalists and energy companies. They will require energy companies and natural-gas explorers to disclose the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing starting in 2012.

This compromise sets the tone for natural gas exploration around the nation. And this is good news for all of us.

The mix of gas and coal in Colorado Springs Utilities’ plants is based on a delicate calculation that includes a variety of variables, such as energy costs and emission regulations.

Since CSU buys coal and gas primarily from Colorado and Wyoming, this compromise means we don’t have to buy it from far-away places which would add to our carbon footprint.

The elephant in our city is the utilities company, a behemoth so big and complex that it’s left to manage itself, practically.

The City Council oversees its operations, but with all due respect, the council members are not up to the task, not least because they evaluate CSU according to a matrix designed by CSU.

Memorial Hospital, which has kept Council awake at night, masterminding solutions to a relatively benign problem, is only a $600 million city enterprise.

CSU’s annual budget is $1.1 billion. Its “dumbed-down” version of the budget is 187 pages long. It must have taken a few weeks worth of time for the huge corporate communication department, the financial department; the legal department at $2.4 million must have supervised, too.

Since it was produced in the glitzy Plaza of the Rockies (A-rated commercial building owned by the Jenkins dynasty), it has heft.

Asking the stern William Cherrier, Chief Planning & Finance Officer, some questions about the budget was like asking your grandmother if she ever used tainted ingredients for her Christmas pie.

Dave Goldberg of public affairs, representing an army of 20, was more than happy to provide further data. Time and again, everything in the budget, from capital improvements to the ratio between operational workers (1,082), customer service employees (590), and planning and finance (89) always received the condescending response: “We are in line with industry standards.”

I won’t bore you with the details of the budget — it’s online, and with some perseverance you may find it — but I suggest that as paying citizens we ask two questions: What does it mean to follow industry standards? And, who is watching over this elephant?

The first question is frightening because last time we heard such language it came from the financial industry, the one that sunk us into the Great Recession. It’s not a matter of trust: perhaps our local utilities officials are trustworthy; rather, what if the whole industry is about to fall off a cliff? Are critics heard as loudly as industry apologists who are well-paid consultants?

It is because of this concern that the second question comes into play: who is in charge? Council members serve as the board. None of them ever sat on a board of such a large enterprise, let alone ran such a behemoth. Do they even know what they are voting on when they approve the budget? Given their meager financial compensation (Leigh may have a point here), and even with the best of intentions (showing up to meetings), I doubt they can seriously dissect the intricacies of the budget. Even Cherrier who is a seasoned pro, according to him, sometimes had to strain with his answers.

Assume all nine councilmembers understood the basics of the utilities budget and future challenges, could any of them propose which way the utilities should move? It’s called a board of directors, after all. Forget about future plans for environmentally-responsible solutions, can the budget be cut by 5 percent without affecting operations? I’d venture to say yes, just because anyone who tries really hard can find ways to cut waste and find economies of scales in an operation as large as $1.1 billion (8.6 percent increase from last year, with .3 percent decline in usage).

Now that the future of Memorial Hospital is secure in the hands of UCH, now that we have a fire and police chiefs, perhaps the strong mayor, as the businessman-in-charge, and the council can focus their collective attention on the utilities. When CSU makes a decision, like buying the remaining 50 percent of Front Range Power, it’s a $416 million decision, so it’s worth their attention (it wasn’t included in the 2011 approved budget).

Who knows, maybe they’ll find a way to turn on all street lights for our safety. It may not seem as important as health care, but freezing residents end up in the hospital. And while they are at it, under the mayor’s “business friendly” motto, please let developers downtown know ahead of time that they will have to come up with $250,000 to get enough electricity, for example, to their Mining Exchange building.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS and will continue to write about CSU. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com Previous articles can be found at sassower.blogspot.com