Drake fight vs. business reality

As you’ve likely read elsewhere in this issue, starting on the front page, the controversy surrounding Martin Drake Power Plant and Colorado Springs Utilities simply won’t go away.

The challenges to Neumann Systems Group’s innovative coal-scrubbing technology — and the unlikely bedfellows created as a result — have become increasingly difficult to follow, much less understand.

The differing sides appear so incredibly far apart, even though this has nothing to do with political parties.

On one end, Utilities has been friendly to businesses, friendly to resident ratepayers, friendly even to outsider companies considering the possibility of relocating here. Through the years, CSU has earned high marks for its customer service, minimal outages and very low rates.

Yet now Utilities has been under attack by some local leaders who allege that the commitment to NeuStream coal-scrubbing methods has been a huge, multi-million-dollar mistake, that the real question should be whether to close Drake as soon as possible, and that the city at least should consider different governance of CSU — if not potentially selling the enterprise.

Has Utilities’ handling of NeuStream qualified as scandalous? No way, as CSBJ reporter Amy Gillentine has discovered from extensive investigation.

In fact, based on the conclusions that have come forth in her stories for this issue, we have to wonder why anyone would view NeuStream as a bad move.

From the business perspective, one question stands out for us above all others:

How can anyone — in or out of government — support the aggressive strategy of economic development, courting new companies and cultivating more jobs, yet at the same time push for closing the Drake plant as soon as possible or even selling off the entire electric portion of Utilities?

Somebody has to explain to us how those positions are anything but contradictory.

Also, we’re puzzled why the same politicians upset about Utilities working with Neumann Systems Group have advocated exactly that kind of public-private partnership in other areas.

From all we’ve learned, Utilities made a smart choice in recent years to work with Neumann, developing ways to help Drake comply with tougher pollution standards.

City Council, acting in its dual role as the Utilities Board, repeatedly has gone along with that contract, so it wasn’t a deep, dark secret.

Instead, CSU officials have welcomed any kind of media coverage of NeuStream’s progress from the start, five years ago.

No matter what happens with the governance of Utilities — whether it continues as part of Council’s job or converts to an independent board — the “new” Council’s most urgent task should be setting a time frame for designing and creating Drake’s replacement.

We’re told that process, from concept to reality, could take as long as 10 years.

Once that timeline comes into sharper focus, then and only then should the city begin moving toward closing Drake. That’s the only way to maintain the low rates, especially for large manufacturing operations but also for mid-sized and smaller businesses, that provide such healthy ballast for the local economy.

The longer we let this uncertainty continue, the more negative signals we send to companies thinking of moving here. As it is, some city leaders appear willing to start down a path that could lead to seriously higher electric rates.

And taking that path, as well as continuing the opposition to NeuStream, simply doesn’t make sense.