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For utilities chief, heating bill's no problem

click to enlarge Colorado Springs Utilities director Phil Tollefson is about - to get a pay raise to $295,900, plus a hefty bonus.
  • Colorado Springs Utilities director Phil Tollefson is about to get a pay raise to $295,900, plus a hefty bonus.

The TV show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? caused great upheaval in our home during the brief time that my wife and I watched it. I, for example, would become bitter and withdrawn when I'd lose one of many $10 bets we'd make on some of the show's questions. (I can still see her holding out her hand for a $10 payment during week seven of the show, an arrogant, I-am-smarter-than-you smirk on her face, when I incorrectly guessed that the telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Rosenblatt. )

And the little woman would get angry over the smallest things, like the way -- at the start of the show and following each commercial break, after the announcer shouted that "Who wants to be a millionaire?" line -- I would leap off the sofa, blow a mouthful of hot chocolate across the room and bellow: "PHIL TOLLEFSON, THAT'S WHO!!!

I have no idea why I did that. It's not like I think Tollefson, the boss of our city-owned utilities, is squeezing ratepayers just so he can stuff more money into the pockets of his hand-stitched silk pants or anything like that.

Tollefson's annual salary, for example, currently stands at a mere $265,900. If you've ever tried to raise a family on those wages, you surely know the heartache of having to look at your kids and tell them that this week the pt de foie gras in their school lunchboxes will be accompanied by cheap, Belgian water crackers instead of the ones from that little bakery in Calais that they like so much.

Demand for new bosses

Fortunately, we have a big-hearted City Council that understands Tollefson's plight, a group of people who got teary-eyed when they noticed at a recent meeting that he was wearing the same $700 Italian necktie that he'd worn at a previous meeting just six months earlier. Frankly, no one should have to live like that.

So next Tuesday, secretly, behind closed doors in what they call an executive session because they don't want to call a lot of attention to their generosity and have to put up with the villagers fawning over them, council members will vote to give Tollefson a raise and bonus.

It won't be much: a paltry $30,000 salary hike, bringing his annual pay to $295,900, and an additional $29,000 bonus -- which tops the package off at $324,900 for the year.

But when you're forced to live in squalor the way Tollefson does -- nothing tugs at the heart quite like seeing a guy drive by in a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow with "Wash Me!" written in the dust on the rear window -- every little bit helps.

Last year, Tollefson received a meager $7,500 raise. And he didn't get any bonus at all. This is because our City Council, which also serves as the utilities board and is the five-time defending champion in the village's annual Team Pie-Eating Contest, was mean. And also perhaps, in some small way, because under Tollefson's leadership the utilities lost an estimated $80 million that year, according to City Councilman Tom Gallagher and others.

With the tiny raise and no bonus, Tollefson knew he was one step closer to the nightmare that haunts all of us: having to drink a domestic chardonnay. So during the summer he shocked the village by demanding new bosses, saying the city should create a new board to oversee utilities, one that didn't include the City Council.

"Basically," said Councilman Gallagher, "he didn't get a big raise and didn't get any bonus and responded by saying we were too stupid to be his bosses. Phil doesn't take 'no' very well."

Tollefson's demand for new bosses was rejected by city officials.

But this year, in an attempt to keep Tollefson happy, our City Council voted last week to approve his request for utility rate hikes. (Footnote: His bonus is based on how much profit utilities rakes in.)

Starting Jan. 1, residential heating bills will jump by an average of $30 to $50 a month during the winter months. On an annual basis, the utility rate hike will bring a typical customer's bill to an average of $183 a month.

The work of crazy people

The additional money from our pockets will go directly toward rising energy costs, with absolutely, positively none of it going in any way whatsoever toward Tollefson's salary or bonus or creating additional utilities' profits.

City Council knows that's true because Tollefson told them so.

And sure, approving a whopping utility rate hike and then a few days later, in a secret, closed-door session, approving nearly $60,000 for a raise and a bonus for the head of utilities may seem like the work of crazy people, but that's just because you and I are morons -- I know I am -- and don't understand this high-finance stuff.

To an idiot like me, for example, it might seem like our elite City Council just pulled the figures -- the $30,000 raise and $29,000 bonus -- out of a hat. This is not true, despite the white rabbit fur clinging to the checks.

The way it actually worked is that the high-priced Phoenix-based consulting firm of Fox Lawson and Associates was hired earlier this year to perform a salary study -- specifically, a study of Tollefson's salary.

The consultant was paid $30,000 to perform the study.

The consultant's study was paid for by utilities (i.e., Tollefson).

The study concluded -- gasp -- that utilities boss Tollefson was underpaid.

I have to go now. I can feel the mouthful of hot chocolate trying to get out.

-- richt@csindy.com

  • For utilities chief, heating bill's no problem

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