Born in Puerto Rico, Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart grew up in the Denver area. His parents were both southern Colorado natives, hailing from Trinidad and Manzanola. But his heart’s always been in Pueblo.

Hart first came to Pueblo in 1971 to attend college at Southern Colorado State College (now Colorado State University, Pueblo). Graduating in 1975 from SCSC with a bachelor’s degree in history and economics, he then attended the University of Colorado’s School of Law, graduating in 1979.

After two years in private practice, Hart took a job as an assistant county attorney for Pueblo County in 1981. He served as county attorney from 1990 to 2001, as a senior associate county attorney from 2001 to 2005 and then as chief of staff to the Pueblo district attorney from 2005 to January 2013. In 2012, he was elected to the three-member Pueblo County Commission.

Hart currently serves on the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District Board, as chairman of Sustainable Pueblo and as president of Colorado Technical Services Inc., a governmental corporation that provides insurance coverage and services for local governments in Colorado.

Earlier this week, Hart shared his thoughts with the Business Journal about the city he serves.

What brought you to Pueblo?

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I came here in 1971, and I’ve been here since. It’s such a great community — the people here are so friendly, and there’s such an amazing mix of ethnicities and cultures. I’ve worked in this wonderful building [the 1910 Pueblo County Courthouse] for more than 30 years, and it’s been great.

What are Pueblo’s challenges and opportunities? 

To be honest, they’re mostly economic. When the steel industry declined so suddenly in the early 1980s, we got together as a community and pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. I’m very proud of that — and of the progress we’ve made — but our economic growth rate has lagged for decades, especially compared to other Front Range cities. We’ve had a great deal of difficulty in recovering from the recession. We’re doing better than most of our neighbors in southeast Colorado, but it’s still a struggle.

What are the specific problems?

We have real issues with the price of electricity. Before Aquila [the successor to Southern Colorado Light and Power Co.] was acquired by Black Hills Energy in 2007, we had some of the lowest electric rates in Colorado. Today, we have some of the highest, and it’s crippling us. It’s very difficult to recruit new companies, and it’s hard to retain the ones we have. At a meeting recently, we heard from the owner of American Metal and Iron. He owns scrapyards in Fountain, Albuquerque and Pueblo, and he told us that his electricity costs here are twice those in Albuquerque and much more than in Fountain.

What can you do to change that?

Our issues go beyond rates. We were concerned some time ago, when we began to hear anecdotal reports of Black Hills’ policies regarding utility shutoffs and deposit requirements. This isn’t a rich county — we have thousands of residents whose incomes are below the poverty level or qualify for disability. Our median household income is significantly lower than the Colorado median. Our electric rates are affecting our lives. In the first quarter, Black Hills disconnected thousands of customers who already couldn’t afford to pay their bills. Our citizens deserve to have a dog in this fight and we are ready to defend them. We [county commission] have been granted intervention status before the Public Utilities Commission. It may require a legislative remedy, a “ratepayers bill of rights,” but we’ll do what we can.

Who sets the rates?

Black Hills Energy is an investor-owned utility. Rates are set by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. When BHE first came to town, we were very impressed, but then Xcel canceled their supply contract, and they said they had to build more capacity and update infrastructure. Then came 20 to 30 percent rate increases, and I began to understand that the state structure rewards investor-owned companies for building infrastructure. They get a rate of return of 9 percent, but the communities and the ratepayers take all the risk. Nine percent? I was always taught that low-risk investments like these get low rates of return.

What other initiatives are in the works?

We’re proud that we’re the economic hub of southern Colorado, but we also realize that we’re connected at the hip to our neighbors in El Paso County and Teller County. [El Paso County Commissioner] Dennis Hisey once said that if you don’t believe that we’re linked, take a look at I-25 traffic past Fountain in the morning and evening. So we’ll all continue to work together. In Pueblo, we understand that ultra- high-speed internet is really desirable, but Colorado law makes it difficult for municipalities to set up their own systems. I think the law was designed to protect the big internet service providers from competition. We’d like to do what Portland, Maine, has done — you can live there and be as connected as you were in New York City, but without the cost and stress.

What do you do when you’re not busy with commission business?

When is that? You know what this job is like — you’re sitting around in meetings all day, you go to lunch, you eat too much, and you sit down in more meetings. I just want to get back to doing what I used to do — playing tennis, riding my road bike, golfing. I’m not very good, but I sure would enjoy it.