Pueblo public utility ballot question amended, lawsuit dismissed

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PUEBLO, Colo. — A lawsuit filed against the city of Pueblo is now dismissed after the city council enacted an emergency ordinance at Monday night’s meeting to amend the ballot question on the public utility issue.

The ballot question which will be brought to the voters in a special election May 5, is asking voters if they’d like to take Pueblo’s power public and drop Black Hills Energy.

“Right now, we have highest electric rates on the front range, and Black Hills offered to freeze those rates at that high level, is just laughable,” said Mayor Nick Gradisar. “It’s going to be in the long-term best interest for the community of Pueblo if we have a public power supply, rather than power supplied by an investor-owned utility. In Pueblo, we have a public water supply. There is no reason in my mind why we can’t do that with electricity as well.”

However, the wording of the ballot was called into question by a group called Pueblo Cares. The group said the previous wording allows the city to raise rates and go into debt “without a vote of the people forever. That’s an incredibly blank check.” They also believe it takes away the right, guaranteed by TABOR, to vote on tax increases.

The Mayor said the wording was not in the ballot title, but it was in the ordinance.

“It is common practice for utility companies to issue revenue bonds based on what the ratepayers can afford,” said Gradisar. “That wasn’t a big deal, and I did not want to get in a fight over the ballot language.”

The Mayor felt the city’s language was adequate because the utility is public; he says it not subject to TABOR.

The lawsuit now dismissed, but Pueblo Cares still calling it a win, saying, “We forced them to disclose all this to voters.” 

If the ballot question passes in May, it will take 5 – 8 years for the city to officially take over for Black Hills. The Mayor said Black Hills would either need to sell their assets or have them condemned.

“They made it pretty clear they aren’t a willing seller. They don’t want to sell they want to continue to own this money machine that we are paying for,” Gradisar said.

Gradisar went on to say if they’re not willing to sell the assets, the Board of Water Works would need to file an application with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) indicating which assets of Black Hills Energy, the Board of Water Works would like to acquire to supply electricity to the city of Pueblo. The PUC would make the determination yay or nay on those assets. 

After that, once they have approved which assets they can acquire legally under Colorado Law, the city would again engage in negotiations with Black Hills and get the assets appraised.

If an agreement is not reached with Black Hills, a condemnation action would be filed in court in Pueblo County. The value of those assets that the PUC said the city could acquire would be determined by a Pueblo judge or jury for market value.

The Mayor also called into question the ethics behind the Pueblo Cares organization and said they have not disclosed where their funding comes from.

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