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Sports, money ... and utilities

I was hangin' with the geezer homies this morning, who had the effrontery to complain about this column. Paul: "It's either too serious, too boring or too liberal!" Greg and Ralph (in unison): "Yeah, Paul's right!" Ok, here's a guy column -- sports, money and ... utilities.

Sports. Don't know about you, but I couldn't be less dismayed about the demise of professional hockey. Compared to the graceful, speedy, and enthusiastic college game, the pros are just lumpish overpaid louts, clutching and grabbing through a meaningless and interminable regular season -- not to mention the meaningless and interminable playoffs. And for those of us who like hockey, we've got the best, most entertaining, gutsiest, and altogether enjoyable team in the country playing right here in River City -- Colorado College. As a kid, I saw CC win the national championship way back in the '50s, and I intend to be there when they win it again this year. Go Tigers!

Now, money. Anyone who appreciates public mendacity will be absolutely delighted by the Bush Social Security reform agenda. The essence of a successful con is always to steal from the mark, while convincing him that you're actually giving him something. That's why personal retirement accounts that individuals would own are such a brilliant conception. Wouldn't everybody rather have money in the bank, instead of a guaranteed benefits check from the no-good guv'mint every month? Of course! ... and don't bother me with all that actuarial stuff; why, I want to be part of the ownership society! You'll be part of the ownership society all right, working for the owners till you're 80 or so.

That said, let's get serious and boring. Let's talk about our very own fully integrated, publicly owned utility, proud purveyor of water, wastewater, gas and electric services.

Forget, for a moment, that it's a city-owned enterprise, whose Board of Directors are a bunch of unqualified small-town politicians (I know, because I used to sit on that very board). Let's look at it as we would look at any billion-dollar corporation. Let's ask the obvious questions: Have management and the board made appropriate strategic decisions? Have they created value? Have long-term stockholders seen substantial appreciation?

Sadly, the answers are no, no and no. Over the last 20 years, the utility has adopted policies which, far from benefiting its shareholders/customers (who are one and the same), have substantially harmed them.

Case in point: In 1991, I suggested, with the support of my then-colleague on council, Cheryl Gillaspie, that utilities acquire natural gas reserves to protect its customers from price fluctuations. Natural gas was then extraordinarily cheap, but most analysts believed that the long-term trend was up. Management gently derided our proposal -- what did we know? We're the experts, they told us, so shut up and leave us alone. We dropped the idea. Well, if utilities had acquired reserves adequate to supply the city with much of its natural gas needs, we wouldn't be stuck with astronomical heating bills. To put it simply, utilities made a disastrously wrong decision that will cost every one of us hundreds, even thousands, of dollars annually. Forever.

Now, let's look at the way that utilities has historically allocated system expansion costs. For at least 25 years, new homebuilders/homeowners have gotten favored treatment. Utilities will tell you that Council so decreed, and they just went along with the politicians. Not so. In fact, utility management never made a serious, systematic and unbiased study of the issue. Now we, the shareholder/customers, are facing a billion-dollar-plus due bill. Sure, we can re-allocate costs to some degree, but the horse left the barn a long time ago. We're screwed.

So is it Tollefson's fault? Isn't he overpaid? Absolutely not; in fact, he's drastically underpaid, and that's the problem. He makes less than $400K and, obviously, gets no stock options. Face it: If you want a competent CEO for a billion-dollar company, you'd better be prepared to fork over a couple million annually. But if, through misguided thrift, you opt for the low-priced guy and hook him up with a know-nothing board, well, you get what you pay for.

Or, in our case, we pay for what they didn't get.

-- johnhazlehust@earthlink.net

  • Sports, money ... and utilities

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