Wednesday’s “special called meeting” of the Colorado Springs City Council took place immediately before the regularly scheduled meeting of the Colorado Springs Utilities Board of Directors. On the agenda: approval of the complex intergovernmental stormwater agreement between Pueblo County and Colorado Springs Utilities.
The meeting venue: The Blue River Room, a fifth-floor conference room in CSU’s Plaza of the Rockies offices. For media, as well as members of the public, it’s inconvenient and unwelcoming — a perfect example of opacity in government.
Council sits at a semicircular table, facing another table where senior managers sit while making presentations. There are about 45 seats behind that table, theoretically reserved for media and members of the public. The number of seats actually available is much lower, since CSU and/or city employees typically occupy anywhere from 10 to 30 seats.
Wednesday’s meeting was packed with big shots from CSU, the city and Pueblo, leaving fewer than a dozen seats for civilians. By the time I arrived, every seat was taken. There’s no place to stand, so I headed back to the office to watch the show on video.
My bad — all regularly scheduled Council meetings are streamed real-time on video, but not those that are held in the Blue River Room. It’s not linked to the system, although video is made available a few days afterward.
After listening to Mayor John Suthers’ presentation, Council voted 8-1 to approve the proposed IGA.
The agreement has some interesting provisions. City Council irrevocably committed to spend at least $460 million to fund 71 designated stormwater projects during the next 20 years. Given that the charter specifically forbids such long-term commitments without voter approval, how could they do it?
They found a simple solution. They just designated CSU as the backup funding source. If future councils refuse to appropriate money for the projects, CSU ratepayers are on the hook.
Why did it take so long to come to an agreement with Pueblo County? And why was it a “take it or leave it” deal, with delay resulting in supposedly apocalyptic consequences? Southern Delivery System shut down. Water rights extinguished. Permits revoked. Feds sue city. Stormwater forbidden to flow down Monument Creek … OK, that’s an exaggeration, but rushed deals are often flawed and worst-case scenarios are often exaggerated.
It’s also interesting to contrast CSU management’s supine acquiescence to the deal with their opposition to special water rates for city parks. They’ve expressed fears that bondholders would react negatively and that such action might even violate bond covenants.
But what about a long-term contingent liability that might amount to hundreds of millions? That kind of unfunded liability might motivate bond underwriters and their customers to look more skeptically at CSU’s leveraged balance sheet.
But investors can take solace in the fact that CSU can raise rates to cover any city shortfall — after all, the municipal utility already contributes about $32.5 million annually in “utility surplus revenue’” to the city general fund, so what’s another $20 million or so?
Takeaway: The Chickens Come Home to Roost, Part 2. Like November’s sales tax increase, this stormwater package is all about deferred maintenance and chronic infrastructure underfunding. Thanks to Douglas Bruce and his co-religionists, we’ve been a city of “infrastructure entitlement” (as Javier Mazzetti so aptly put it).
Roads, bridges, drainage structures, public improvements of all kinds? Let someone else pay.
Since 1991, Colorado Springs voters have elected to squander our municipal inheritance by keeping taxes and utility rates artificially low, passing on the problems to the next generation.
And guess what? We’re the next generation, so it’s up to us to pay those past-due bills, catch up and pass on a better city to the future.
While we’re at it, let’s lose the conference room.
I know — CSU senior managers don’t like trudging over to City Hall and believe that CSU’s status as a separate enterprise requires that they host meetings.
Sorry guys, but that’s why we have City Hall, with its spacious council chambers and citizen-friendly atmosphere. It was created to house and celebrate our local democracy, to be open, participatory and accessible. It’s the house that Mayor John Robinson built in 1902, magnificent, irreplaceable and renovated at a cost of millions in the early years of this century.
So let’s ditch CSU’s nasty conference room and hold meetings in democracy’s granite temple at the corner of Kiowa and Nevada. Live video, plenty of seats, room for everyone to have a say. But maybe that’s what they want to avoid?