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Collins culpable, urban renewal shortfalls, NeuStream success, and more 

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click to enlarge Helen Collins: Censure called for. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Helen Collins: Censure called for.

Collins found culpable

Retired Judge Boyd Boland ruled in a 29-page decision issued last week that City Councilor Helen Collins violated the city ethics code by participating in a land transfer with Douglas Bruce in December 2014.

City Council was due to vote on Tuesday after the Independent's press time on a timeline for concluding the ethics case, which has cost taxpayers more than $50,000 in attorney and hearing officer fees. The proposal calls for a March 8 deadline for the filing of statements opposing the hearing officer findings, and a Council vote on March 15, which concludes the matter unless appealed to the District Court.

Boland recommended that Collins be censured but not fined, because she didn't personally benefit from the land transfer. The City Attorney's Office, which filed the ethics complaint against Collins in January 2015, alleged the land deal was designed to allow Bruce to dodge paying a $7,500 city judgment. Bruce deeded a condominium to Collins, who a few days later sold it to a third-party buyer. Bruce paid the judgment on May 4, 2015.

A censure has no impact on Collins' ability to carry out her Council duties. It's unclear if the city plans to seek reimbursement from Collins, whose term expires in April 2017, for the money spent on adjudicating the ethics violation. — PZ

City eats urban renewal costs

A city audit issued in November shows the city last year "wrote off" $846,988 owed by the Lowell neighborhood urban renewal area. The write-off came after the 25-year urban renewal designation expired without generating enough tax money to repay a loan from the city.

That was among several findings in a City Auditor's Office review, which also reported that three other urban renewal projects fell short of predictions in sales tax collections through 2014. The North Nevada Avenue area has fallen 50 percent short of forecasts; Ivywild, 44 percent short, and Copper Ridge on the city's north side, 74 percent.

Meantime, the Urban Renewal Authority was due to meet Wednesday (today) to review a study of urban renewal areas' economic impact, conducted by local firm Summit Economics. The study, which didn't mention the city's forgiveness of the Lowell loan, concludes that "cumulatively over the years" $14.7 million in revenues have been generated by sales taxes and use taxes on building materials for construction in six urban renewal areas, including $5.5 million in city sales tax revenue.

It also noted that the six active urban renewal areas total 975 acres, of which 376 acres are vacant, 327 acres government-owned, and only 76 acres occupied by some form of residential, although creating affordable housing is one of four urban renewal goals. The others are curing blight, creating jobs and "creating quality sustainable places."

The authority is in the spotlight because tax increment financing used to fund urban renewal will likely fund development of a downtown stadium as part of City for Champions tourism venture. The stadium would be located in the Southwest Downtown urban renewal area, which was approved for urban renewal in 2001 for 25 years. But nothing has happened there, so developers want to redo the designation under a phasing approach, which essentially would restart the 25-year clock on the use of city sales and possibly property tax money for infrastructure in that area. — PZ

click to enlarge Drake Power Plant is being fitted with pollution control equipment that handily passed recent testing. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Drake Power Plant is being fitted with pollution control equipment that handily passed recent testing.

Scrubbers work, tests show

Neumann Systems Group issued a release last week saying its NeuStream pollution control device worked better than expected on the latest tests at the city's Martin Drake Power Plant. The technology removed 98.6 percent of the sulfur dioxide. State air quality limits for sulfur dioxide become effective at the end of 2017.

The project has been criticized in recent weeks for yet another cost increase for installation of the equipment, which now totals roughly $180 million. In 2011, Colorado Springs Utilities had stated the cost at $111.8 million.

Neumann also said in the release that he's marketing the technology in China, which has hundreds of coal-fired power plants but faces natural gas prices that in Asia are five times that of coal. Under the city's contract with NSG, in which the city agreed to act as the guinea pig for the NeuStream technology, the city would receive up to 5 percent for each system sold for 10 years after the technology becomes operational at Drake. — PZ

Dear goes back to court

Robert L. Dear, 57, facing 179 charges in the Nov. 27 Planned Parenthood shooting spree that killed three people and wounded nine, was to be back in court Wednesday (today) for a status conference.

Dear was ordered in December to undergo a mental evaluation.

A legal battle over the public's access to arrest and search warrants in the Dear case continues with the filing last week of arguments defending presiding District Judge Gilbert Martinez's decision to keep the records closed.

Filed by the Attorney General's Office on Martinez's behalf, the pleading notes that the trial court has an "inherent supervisory power over its own files," and that "This case, like other high-profile murder cases, demands deference to this inherent power, which will allow Chief Judge Martinez to revisit the request to unseal the warrant records after the criminal investigation has concluded and as this case proceeds."

Both the Independent and Gazette are part of the media group seeking access. — PZ

Concussion doctor coming to UCCS

Dr. Bennet Omalu, the inspiration behind the movie Concussion, will speak April 19 at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs as part of the university's Significant Speaker series.

Omalu, the scientist who researched chronic brain injuries in football players, discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in the brains of dead NFL players in 2002, and was the first to publish peer-reviewed research on the subject. The NFL initially sought to discredit his findings. The Will Smith movie is based on Omalu's story.

Omalu will speak at 7 p.m. at UCCS' Gallogly Events Center. Those interested in attending may want to pick up their tickets early, while they're still $2 to $5. Tickets are on sale at the University Center information desk. — JAS

Wind farm land values up

Many residents were deeply concerned when the county approved NextEra Energy Resources' 250-megawatt wind farm in the Calhan area. Among their concerns: The towering windmills and transmission lines would lower property values in an area where residents are accustomed to uninterrupted views of plains and sky.

But, so far at least, that doesn't appear to be a problem. In fact, El Paso County Assessor Steve Schleiker told El Paso County commissioners recently that properties have been selling well in the area, fetching prices far above their assessment values. Schleiker is looking at sales from July 1, 2014, through June 30, 2016, to go through the normal reappraisal process.

"Please keep in mind," he told commissioners, "we still have five more months of sales data to include for this reappraisal, but I can tell you that there is a good deal of sales activity occurring in the wind farm area and we are seeing increases in both the mean and median prices paid for those properties."

Still, assessor documents show 712 homes sold in the area of the transmission lines in 2015 for a total of $181.1 million, which is $42.9 million more than their current assessed value. Thirty parcels of grazing land sold for $5.4 million, or $3.7 million above the assessor's market value. Sixty-two parcels of vacant land sold for $4.4 million, or about $1.6 million more than valued. Twelve commercial properties sold for a total of $558,901, which is $13,569 below the assessor's market value — however, a single discounted sale could have thrown off the average. — JAS

CC slammed for free speech

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit educational foundation dedicated to preserving individual rights on college and university campuses, has named Colorado College one of 2016's 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech.

The unenviable distinction is a result of a student suspension the college made in response to concerns over race relations.

Greg Lukianoff, FIRE's president and CEO, wrote in depth about each of the Top Ten for Huffington Post. He noted that Colorado College suspended student Thaddeus Pryor after he responded anonymously on Yik Yak to a post that read "#blackwomenmatter" with the comment, "They matter, they're just not hot."

"Colorado College responded by imposing a 21-month suspension, during which Pryor was forbidden from taking courses for academic credit at any other institution," Lukianoff wrote. "Following Pryor's appeal and a letter from FIRE reminding Colorado College that its actions violated the freedom of expression that the college promises to its students, Pryor's suspension was reduced to six months."

FIRE notes in a press release that CC, as a private institution, is not required to respect student and faculty rights, but it "nonetheless promise[s] to do so." Colorado College spokesperson Leslie Weddell said via email that the college couldn't comment on the details of the situation because student disciplinary records are protected by federal privacy law.

"I can tell you," she said, "that Colorado College followed its disciplinary procedures in this case." — JAS

click to enlarge County commissioners want to clear up some fracking misinformation. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • County commissioners want to clear up some fracking misinformation.

Get your fracking facts right

Seven test wells were drilled in El Paso County from 2011 to 2014, no drilling for oil and gas has been done in the county since 2014, and only one site was fracked.

That information comes from Senior Assistant County Attorney Diana May, El Paso County's local government designee through the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission permitting process. May recently provided a report clarifying oil and gas activities to the Board of County Commissioners.

A county press release said commissioners hoped the report would clear up some misinformation voiced during public comment periods at BOCC meetings. Specifically, some have claimed that the same company has been fracking and building wind farms in the county. While they have similar names, NextEra Energy is the company behind the controversial wind farm near Calhan. NexGen Oil and Gas is one of the companies that has drilled in the county. They are not related. — JAS

Graham enters Senate field

Yet another name has been added to the list of a dozen or so Republican candidates running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. Jack Graham, who has never held elected office before, pumped $1 million of his own money into his campaign.

Graham, a former Colorado State University quarterback and businessman, owned his own insurance company before selling it in 2010. He then successfully urged CSU to build a new stadium and was named athletic director. Dick Wadhams, former chair of the Colorado Republican Party, is serving as Graham's campaign manager.

The Denver Post reports that Graham was a Democrat until a year ago, a fact that will surely come up as the campaign moves forward. — JAS

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