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Don't let them eat shrimp

click to enlarge Our very own Taj Mahal, otherwise known as the executive offices of Colorado Springs Utilities at the Plaza of the Rockies downtown. Ratepayers paid $12 million for the luxurious spaces in the most expensive office building in the city and are currently spending hundreds of thousands in renovations. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Our very own Taj Mahal, otherwise known as the executive offices of Colorado Springs Utilities at the Plaza of the Rockies downtown. Ratepayers paid $12 million for the luxurious spaces in the most expensive office building in the city and are currently spending hundreds of thousands in renovations.

I don't know about you, but on the day my monthly Colorado Springs Utilities bill arrived I'd be overcome with a feeling of happiness. I'd hold up the bill, look at my wife and say: "You know, Debbie, this bill seems pretty reasonable. We're darn lucky to be living in such a great town with such great leaders and such low utility rates!"

Then my wife would call me an "idiot" and attempt to back up that mean and unfair accusation by angrily shoving "documentation" in front of me. (Last month she shoved the documents at me while I was busy working, crafting one of these columns in the serious and professional way I that I do. This startled me, causing me to clench my hand and accidentally turn off the semifinals of the Louisiana State Carp Fishing Tournament on ESPN2 and spit a mouthful of Fruity Pebbles all over my pajamas.)

Anyway, one document a very agitated Debbie showed me said our village's gas, electricity and water rates have jumped, for the average residential customer, from $105 a month in 1994 to $157 today and, according to projections, will leap to $251 a month within nine years.

The other document seemed to indicate that her name is "Susie."

That, of course, made me feel terrible. It clearly indicated that it's time for me to start become more attentive.

I mean, really. Two hundred and fifty-one dollars a month?

Say cheese

Since that day, I've done two things. Three if you count calling my wife by her actual name. (Marital bliss footnote: It was nice, to use the old expression, to finally get "out of the doghouse." Now Dennis, our poodle, can really stretch out.)

Anyway, what I did was conduct my own actual research into how our village-owned utilities functions, including a guided tour of its unbelievably posh downtown offices. Then, by watching television, I learned more about the utilities' spending practices.

That research was done by local Channels 5/30 TV investigative reporter James Jarman. (In a stroke of good luck, Jarman's report on KOAA Channels 5/30 aired during a commercial break in the Carp finals.)

Today, I will offer a glimpse into why our utilities' treatment of its customers is starting to make U.S.-held Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad look like Club Med. (Motto for both: "Free Photos Of Your Visit!")

First, Jarman dug into details of a Utilities reception last November held at the swank and private Garden of the Gods Club. The shindig was put on by Utilities director Phil Tollefson (who kept referring to the place as the Garden of the Me Club).

In addition to Tollefson, attending the ritzy gathering was our entire City Council and several state legislators.

The cost: $4,274.

Actual (I swear I am not kidding) highlights of the party bill: $750 for shrimp and $375 for cheese platters.

Note: Mayor Lionel Rivera was in the news a few weeks ago when -- under strict orders from his own personal god (Focus on the Family boss James Dobson) -- he refused to give an official city welcome to the visiting International Society of Atheists. Our mayor was apparently more tolerant back in November when, according to a fellow partygoer, he officially welcomed about 25 shrimp into his mouth.

Asked about the $4,274 party, paid for by funds from the same utilities that will threaten to turn off your heat in the winter if you're late paying your bill, here's what Mayor Cocktail Sauce had to say: "The reception was more expensive than it should have been. That won't happen again."

(Footnote: Utilities has held this kind of swank, expensive, aren't-we-special party annually for some time now. Lionel "My, That's A Tiny Fork" Rivera has attended each one, as a city councilman and now as mayor.)

Marble floors and waterfalls

But enough about shrimp and cheese platters. If you really want to see where your utilities bill money is going, visit its offices.

Utilities execs say average residential users will see their monthly water bill more than double, from $34 in 2003 to $70 in 2008. Wastewater charges will go from $15 today to $29 during the same period. And a whopping 36-percent increase in the price utilities charges for gas was put into effect last October.

Which makes its five floors in the South Tower of the stunning downtown Plaza of the Rockies building seem pretty funny.

Unless you struggle to pay your monthly bill.

Looking for new office space in 2000 after being forced out of the County Administration Building, Utilities aimed high. It purchased the entire third, fourth and fifth floors, and part of the second floor in the South Tower. The cost: $9.9 million.

Last year, to relocate its 35-member Human Resources department, Utilities purchased the entire sixth floor of the same building for an additional $2.1 million. So far it has spent $670,249 to renovate the sixth floor for the swarm of Human Resources employees. (Furniture, cubicles, computers and other office items are not included in that figure.)

The 13,149 square feet on the sixth floor brought the total space owned by our Utilities in the most expensive office building in the city to a bit over 91,000 square feet.

Oh, and to maintain the marble floors and shimmering stainless steel decorative water falls and beautiful oak trim in the building, Utilities pays the building owner, Nor'wood Development Corp. (motto: "Yes, You Are Paying For the Fancy Apostrophe") $489,037 a year. That amount is Utilities' share of janitorial services, maintenance of common areas in the building and (this is my favorite part) utilities.

Times were good

Springs' Vice Mayor Richard Skorman, a member of City Council -- which also serves as the Utilities' board of directors and approves Utilities spending, has this to say:

"Given the current economic climate and the fact that we've raised rates for utilities, if we had to decide today I'd have them look at cheaper office space. We made the decision when times were good. They're there now, but they wouldn't be if we had to make the decision today. That's Class A real estate, the most expensive in the city."

All of which makes any reference to the salaries of the top executives of our village-owned Utilities seem unimportant. Although, if you insist: Chief Executive Officer Tollefson was paid $265,404 in 2003 along with a $22,675 bonus; Chief Operating Officer Jerry Forte was paid $195,888 and was given a $17,324 bonus, and Public Affairs Officer (PR flack) Sherri Newell was paid $132,363 and given a $14,484 bonus.

For that kind of money, you'd think Tollefson, Forte and Newell could get together and buy a nice boat.

And catch their own damn shrimp.

-- richt@csindy.com

  • Don't let them eat shrimp

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