By Adrian D. Garcia
Boulder voters face competing energy utility measures on the ballot Tuesday, one put forth by Boulder City Council that would advance a city owned and operated electric system, and the other funded largely by energy giant Xcel that would slow the process down if not derail it.
The city’s measure, Question 2E, would authorize the expenditure of up to $214 million to acquire Excel Energy’s distribution system in Boulder, continuing the process approved by city voters in 2011 to explore forming a municipal electric utility. Advocates argue Boulder could more effectively pursue green energy goals if it was operating its own “muni.”
Question 310, which arrived on the ballot first via a citizens’ initiative, forcing the city to put up its competing measure, would also amend the city’s home rule charter to stipulate that voters would have to approve the total debt limit and repayment amount of any debt a municipal utility issues. Any Boulder County residents who might receive energy from the city’s utility would also vote on that debt.
“It’s inconvenient for the city to get the voters input, but it’s also a massive amount of debt that the city’s taking on,” said Katy Atkinson, spokeswoman for Voter Approval of Debt Limits, an issue committee supporting Question 310. She said the measure “tells the city that the voters get a say on all of the debt.”
All of which has led to dueling political ads, including pro and anti-310 ads which adorn the Boulder Daily Camera’s web site .
“The new utility could cost $405 million or more!” the pro 310 ad warns, as opposed to the $214 million proposed by 2E.
But the Daily Camera has endorsed Question 2E, arguing that 310 would simply “derail the process and prematurely kill the potential for municipalization.”
It’s possible that both measures could pass, but the one with the most votes would stand.
Meanwhile, both sides promote their causes.
“Energy use is the largest contributing factor to climate change,” said Steve Fenberg, executive director of New Era Colorado. “Boulder would be the first city in the country to create an energy utility for the reason of reducing that and targeting climate change.”
Proponents of 310 said that their measure is the best way for residents to limit the amount of debt that Boulder would incur from a municipal electric utility. One clear limitation 310 introduces is on the extension of city service into the county. It requires that any county voters receiving city electricity be allowed to vote on the muni debt limits during regularly scheduled fall elections.
Question 2E would allow the city to provide energy beyond Boulder city limits and creates an advisory board with members throughout the county to help the city council set rates, fees and charges.
“I doubt 310 would have such a drastic effect,” said University of Colorado School of Law professor Richard Collins via email. “310 provides for voluntary, not required, votes by the few county residents that might be included in Boulder’s municipal service area.”
“The novel question is whether a home-rule city can allow such votes,” he said. “The answer is likely yes because there are already votes in which nonresident landowners participate — this does not seem much different.”
Having two competing measures on the ballot and the language they contain is confusing for voters, said Paul Komor, a director of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, collaboration between the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“Issue 310 is much more aggressive. It requires a public vote before the city incurs any debt related to municipalization. That’s a challenge,” Komor said. “The language in 2E gives the city much more flexibility.”
Komor said municipalization may still be possible if 310 passes if Xcel and the city work together, and court remedies are possible if negotiations fail.
There’s been considerable spending on both sides. As of Oct. 22 the Yes on 2E groups – including Empower Our Future, Sierra Club Indian Peaks Group Issue Committee, PLAN Boulder County Issue Committee, Voters Against Xcel Buying Elections and Boulder’s Clean Energy Future – spent $217,978, as of Oct. 22.
Fenberg said many contributors are looking to see if municipalization that focuses on the environment can succeed in Boulder and be replicated elsewhere.
Public Service Company of Colorado and Voter Approval of Debt Limits has spent more than three times that amount – $674,605 – to persuade a yes vote on 310. Voter Approval of Debt Limits received its largest contribution – $329,861 – from Xcel Energy, a clear stakeholder in energy service in Boulder.
“This is not Xcel’s measure,” Atkinson said. “They support it and we appreciate the funding but this is a measure put on the ballot by Boulder residents.”