Drake: the new battleground 

City Sage

Saddle up boys, and saddle up well, For I think these cattle have scattered to hell. — "The Old Chisholm Trail"

Three weeks ago, in response to demands from Mayor Steve Bach, the downtown community and City Council, Colorado Springs Utilities agreed to fund an extensive study of the coal-burning Martin Drake Power Plant. The study would consider all alternatives, ranging from immediate decommission and tear-down to keeping the ancient plant in operation for decades to come.

Electric generation boss Bruce McCormick unveiled a tripartite plan last week. The centerpiece is a "technical review" covering everything from operating efficiencies to fuel price forecasts. Performed by Utilities-chosen consultants, it'll cost around $500,000. Second is a speculative economic development analysis (possibly by the Chamber/EDC) focusing on all the great stuff that might happen if the ancient smoke-belcher is junked. The third, to be done by yet another consultant group, will manage the public process.

Just as roundball junkies never tire of watching Michael Jordan's crossover dribble, connoisseurs of bureaucratic maneuvering surely appreciate McCormick's sly brilliance. He proposes to reveal all, but the revelations are meaningless. Council will be overwhelmed by technical minutiae, but no policy guidance. Coal or gas? Tear down, phase out or retain? Baseball stadium, ballfields, or barbed wire around a Superfund site? Neumann system or no system? On the one hand, on the other hand, and so on, ad infinitum.

Like an NBA Hall of Famer, McCormick uses his dazzling moves to distract and befuddle his marks. You want information? Here it is. You want choices? Here they are. Corralled like so many cattle on the Chisholm Trail, our dizzied, gently manipulated Councilors will trot down the chute, bawling that inaction is the only safe action. And Utilities will have successfully decoupled the Drake discussion from the much more significant issue of what to do about Utilities itself.

It's ludicrous to spend $500,000 asking consultants to decide a simple operational issue. Utilities staff can do that in 10 seconds if Council provides clear policy guidelines.

Do we want the cheapest power possible? Keep Drake. Do we want to attract power-guzzling businesses like data centers that depend on cheap power? Keep Drake. Do we think that an aging downtown power plant has a cool 19th-century aesthetic, which actually might lure those steampunk-loving young professionals? Preserve Drake!

Do we want a more inviting, greener downtown? Junk Drake. Do we want to appear bold, dynamic and unafraid of the future? Junk Drake.

Councilors can't decide. They want to have it both ways. Hence, Team McCormick will stage a little Kabuki theater and lead Council into the sunny uplands of no-decision policy-making.

That's where Mayor Bach comes in. He has no statutory authority over Utilities, which remains under Council control. He could have genially stepped back and left everything up to Council. Instead, he's injected himself into the discussion. His public skepticism about Drake helped drive the debate, and he seems willing to consider the sale of Utilities' electrical-generation assets.

There's been a lot of speculation about the consequences of such a sale. Would rates shoot up? Would the city enjoy a giant windfall, even after paying off Utilities' multibillion-dollar debt? Who would set rates? And could junking Drake be a condition of any sale?

You can't expect the enterprise's senior managers to advocate selling. They believe, not without reason, that local ownership and control of the utility system has greatly benefited the city. And no sane person wants to put him/herself out of a job.

That leaves the mayor. He doesn't need anybody's permission to hire Bain or McKinsey or another consulting company and ask it to explore the sale of certain utility assets. Council may be Utilities' governing body, but Bach is the city's CEO. Doing so would put Utilities in play, and we'd find out soon enough what those assets would bring, and whether it would make sense to sell them.

Initiating such a process would be risky, controversial and incautious.

Just the kind of thing you'd expect from a strong mayor...



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