Sixty years ago, my father took me duck shooting for the first time. He had given me a 20-gauge single-barreled shotgun a few months before my 12th birthday, and had carefully instructed me in its use.
We spent weekends trap shooting and skeet shooting. He taught me how to lead the clay pigeon, estimate range, and take my shot. He taught me the importance of accuracy, and the greater importance of judgment.
“Don’t waste your shot,” he told me, “and don’t cripple birds. If you can’t bring them down, wait — you’ll have another chance.”
Satisfied that I had learned my lesson, he took me shooting on the Sanborn Ranch with three of his pals. The ducks were flying on that cold winter day, and I did my father proud. He was happy and his friends slapped me on the back as they sat in the afternoon sunlight and passed around a flask (not to me, alas!).
Hunters who shoot at anything that moves are more likely to shoot their companions than the ducks overhead, or the quail rising before them (see Cheney, Dick). Politicians who flail about wildly, or choose targets that are out of range accomplish little, and are eventually ushered off stage (see Leigh, Tim).
Yet even the most reckless of shooters may be aiming at the right target.
Consider Colorado Springs Utilities, which City Council has declared will forever be municipally owned.
Ten or fifteen years ago, Memorial Hospital had the same status. Except for a few right-wing cranks who thought the city ought to stick to its knitting and let health care facilities be run by private entities, city residents and their leaders overwhelmingly favored continued municipal ownership.
The hospital was profitable, well-run and dominated its market — what was not to like?
But the cranks were right. The health care market was fluid, rapidly changing and inherently risky. Small stand-alone municipal hospitals couldn’t make it alone.
The Memorial story had a happy ending, thanks in part to Tim Leigh and his sometimes irascible colleagues.
Thus encouraged, Leigh went after Colorado Springs Utilities. In retrospect, his quixotic crusade against Jerry Forte and Dave Neumann was like sending Dick Cheney to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. Leigh fought the wrong battles on the wrong terrain with the wrong weapons — but maybe he was on to something.
The case for keeping CSU intact as a four-service utility provider is simple and straightforward. CSU is conservatively and carefully managed, provides utility services at competitive rates, and allows the city to control its own destiny. Rates are determined by our elected City Council, not faceless bureaucrats at the Public Utilities Commission. CSU transfers more than $30 million annually to the city general fund, more than any private utility would pay as a franchise fee. If Xcel bought CSU’s electric generation and distribution facilities, rates would go up and hundreds of CSU employees would lose their jobs. CSU wouldn’t be a part of our community — corporate chieftains in Minneapolis would make the decisions, and they’d be slow to respond to the needs of local residents and businesses.
The case against keeping electric generation and transmission is even simpler. Electric utilities are increasingly businesses of scale. CSU’s customer base is too small to fund system upgrades, such as replacing Drake. Cheap gas and a tougher regulatory environment threaten CSU, just as Wal-Mart threatened traditional retailers a generation ago. We’re living in a fool’s paradise. The politicians on Council are pandering to their constituents, afraid to even ask for an outside opinion.
So what will Keith King and his timid colleagues do? Nothing is the best option politically, but the worst in the long run. Hiring McKinsey or any credible national firm to study CSU’s long-term viability wouldn’t be popular, but it might be the most important single action Council will take in the next four years.
As one cranky right-wing retiree told me a couple of weeks ago “Here’s the deal — we can sell electric generation for $1 billion today, or wait ten years and sell it for $1.”
Sometimes you have to take the shot — because, as my Dad told me sixty years ago “If you don’t take any shots, you won’t get any birds.”