News Briefs 

Council delays vote on electric rates

click to enlarge Councilman Scott Hente
  • Councilman Scott Hente

Council delays vote on electric rates

Seeking to avoid a deadlock, the Colorado Springs City Council on Tuesday postponed voting on whether a pending 8-percent increase in electric rates should be made effective June 1.

In January, the Council approved the rate increase, which would raise the average residential utility bill by $3.20 per month, but decided at the time to make it effective Aug. 1. Colorado Springs Utilities is now asking that the date be moved up two months, which would enable the utility to collect an additional $4 million for repairs and maintenance on the city's electric system.

After hearing from numerous residents who opposed moving up the date, four council members were leaning toward denying the request from Utilities, while four considered approving it. The Council's ninth member, Jerry Heimlicher, was absent during the Tuesday hearing. The Council ultimately voted to postpone the matter until May 11.

Representatives for the utility company said implementing the rate increase sooner could help prevent a possible decrease in the company's bond rating, which would make it more costly for the company to borrow money. A lower bond rating could cost ratepayers more than $100 million in increased interest payments on future debt, according to company representatives.

Because of that possibility, some council members said raising electric rates now could help keep rates down in the long run. "We're trying to avoid larger increases down the road," said Councilman Scott Hente.

Others, however, said the Council needed to stick with its previous decision. "I think there is some credibility that we have to maintain with the public," said Councilman Larry Small.

The Council on Tuesday also postponed voting on whether to double the city's copy fees. Most city offices currently charge citizens 50 cents per page for copies of official documents, but staff members have asked that the fee be increased to $1.

Several businesses near City Hall charge from 3 cents to 8 cents per page for photocopies. Council members said earlier this month that they would like to see more documentation of why the city should charge $1.

-- Terje Langeland

Hot race barely simmering

The race for House District 18 is expected to be one of the hardest-fought in this fall's elections for the Colorado Legislature, but things haven't yet heated up as expected.

Campaign-finance reports filed recently show that Rep. Michael Merrifield, the Democrat who currently represents the district -- and the only Democrat in the county's 13-member delegation -- has only $6,398 on hand. His presumptive Republican challenger, political newcomer Kent Lambert, has collected only $1,076.

Merrifield won the district, which covers Manitou Springs along with portions of central and west Colorado Springs, by just 112 votes two years ago, defeating Republican candidate Dan Stuart in a race that cost the candidates and their respective parties hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Republicans have declared it a top priority to retake Merrifield's seat this fall, though they have failed to field a well-known candidate; Lambert has no previous political experience.

Despite its high profile, this year's contest might attract less money due to a campaign-finance law approved by state voters in 2002, which limits individual campaign contributions to $200.

Merrifield, who is wrapping up his second legislative session, says he'll soon be starting to raise more money.

"We just haven't gotten into high gear on fund-raising yet," he said.

Lambert refused to speak with the Independent and referred calls to his campaign manager, Kay Rendleman. Rendleman didn't respond to a message seeking comment.

-- Terje Langeland

Rash of garage stereo thefts stymie security

On the scale of global catastrophe, a stolen car stereo is roughly akin to a stubbed toe.

But still, a lifted sound system is a shock for any victim especially when the heist occurs in a place they thought was safe. For Shari Graham, it was also a spot she paid for: The city-owned parking garage on South Nevada Avenue and Kiowa.

Last Tuesday afternoon, Graham, returned to her parking spot to find her daughter's freshly fixed up Jeep Cherokee not so fixed. "They broke out the rider's side glass ... ripped out the new dash, obviously they were trying to get at the CD player," Graham said.

And get it they did. That day alone, four other cars parked in the lot were also broken into. Police have not identified any suspects in the vandalism.

"It's happened before," said Standard Parking manager Trish Mulkin, who said the thefts occurred sometime after 8 that morning.

The lot on Nevada and Kiowa is one of three city-owned garages whose management is contracted out to the Standard Parking Company, a private facilities management company based in Chicago.

According to city parking administrator Greg Warnke, responsibility for the garage's security falls under the city's bailiwick. "We have a lot of presence in the garage," Warnke said. "We have seven floors, and we can't be everywhere at all times."

Warnke noted that the garage is monitored by a roving security patrol in the afternoons with an extra officer for Friday and Saturday nights. In addition, a maintenance worker provides "passive security" by keeping his eye on the lot during morning hours.

click to enlarge Councilman Larry Small
  • Councilman Larry Small

Warnke said that last week's rash of break-ins was the first theft in the lot since January.

The garage's location above the Springs Transit bus station and near Palmer High School and the Marian House soup kitchen can attract loiterers who might be tempted while waiting for the bus, Warnke said. "You know what they say about idle hands."

Out a stereo, 10 CDs and facing dashboard reconstruction, Graham remains riled. "It's $50 a month [for a parking pass]," she said. "That's an incredible income for no security."

-- John Dicker

GOPsters sink voucher bill

Resisting pressure from Gov. Bill Owens, two Republican state lawmakers from El Paso County broke ranks last week to help narrowly defeat a bill that would have given some public-school students vouchers to attend private schools.

Reps. Mark Cloer of Colorado Springs and Richard Decker of Fountain joined three other Republicans in voting against the proposal, House Bill 1442, on April 23. All of the Democrats in the state House of Representatives opposed the bill, which ended up losing on a 33-32 vote.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nancy Spence of Arapahoe County and Sen. Andy McElhany of Colorado Springs, was intended to replace a voucher bill that was signed into law last year but later found unconstitutional. A judge ruled that last year's bill took away control from local school districts by directing them to spend their money on vouchers.

This year's replacement bill would have directed only state funds, and no local school-district funds, to be spent on vouchers.

Gov. Owens himself made a rare appearance on the floor of the House to try to talk Cloer into voting for the bill, but the lawmaker wouldn't budge. A substitute teacher, Cloer said he worried that giving public funds to private schools might bring the private schools partially under the state's control.

Decker, meanwhile, received a phone call from Owens and a visit from a lobbyist working for the governor.

A retired teacher, Decker said he's concerned that an onslaught of legislation seeking to expand charter schools and vouchers amounts to an attempt to gradually dismantle traditional public education.

"They're just incrementally picking it apart," Decker said.

Citing the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled against school segregation, Decker called the voucher bill "kind of an effort to re-segregate the poorest students out of public schools" by sending them off to private institutions.

"I think it's public schools' responsibility to help them," Decker said. "We shouldn't just cut them loose."

Decker said he was also worried that the private schools won't be accountable to the state.

Voucher backers didn't give up after the defeat, however; another voucher bill was already in the works at press time.

"They're pressuring us to vote for the new bill," Decker said.

-- Terje Langeland

Salazar won't debate Miles

Mike Miles has challenged Ken Salazar, through press releases, by phone, in radio interviews and in stump speeches, to debate him.

But so far, there's no indication that voters will get to hear the two Democratic candidates for U. S. Senate duke it out.

Miles, a Fountain educator and ex-diplomat, says he's challenged Salazar, Colorado's attorney general, at least 10 times -- to no avail. "Any chance I get, I challenge him," Miles said last week.

When the Independent contacted Salazar's campaign headquarters to ask whether Salazar would meet the challenge, campaign spokesman Cody Wertz wouldn't give a direct answer. He did imply, however, that Salazar would be too busy to debate Miles for at least the next month, because he's touring the state talking to voters.

"Ken's focus is on these meetings, the 'Conversations With Colorado,'" Wertz said.

Miles, who has never before held political office, has been running for more than two years for the Senate seat held since 1992 by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican. Salazar jumped into the race just last month, after Campbell suddenly announced he would not seek re-election this fall.

Salazar's name recognition, moderate views and support from Democratic Party leaders quickly made him the presumed front-runner in the race, though Miles has been picking up support lately from delegates to the statewide Democratic Party assembly late next month, where the party's nomination will be decided.

Miles said he believes Salazar doesn't want to debate him because it would crystallize significant differences between the two candidates. For instance, Miles said that while he opposes school vouchers and disagreed with the invasion of Iraq, Salazar has backed both.

"They're big ones," Miles said of the policy differences. "We're not talking about minor things here."

The main Republican candidates seeking to succeed Campbell, former Colorado Congressman Bob Schaffer and beer magnate Peter Coors, are expected to debate each other during the primary, according to a spokeswoman for Coors' campaign.

-- Terje Langeland


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