Proponents of a Boulder municipal electric utility say a proposed charter amendment that would force another vote on municipalization would effectively "kill" the city utility before Boulder could even hold that second vote.

"Here we are in the middle of the process, gathering information, doing what voters asked us to do, and simultaneously having a task force jointly with Xcel to see if there are some viable options for some partnerships," Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum said. "Right in the middle of that, they're clearly trying to kill it. Permanently kill it. I think that's quite inappropriate."

A group of Boulder residents filed paperwork with the city Wednesday afternoon stating its intent to circulate petitions for a potential charter amendment.

The amendment would require that before a city-run electric utility could issue any debt, voters would have to approve the amount of the debt limit and the total cost of debt repayment. It also would require that the utility's service area remain within Boulder's city limits unless registered electors from the unincorporated portion of the service area also are permitted to vote in the debt limit and repayment cost election.

Those two requirements would amount to a second vote on municipalization.

In a news release about the proposed charter amendment, Phil Fox, a spokesman for Voter Approval of Debt Limits, said the charter amendment is not meant to be a referendum on whether the city should proceed with municipalization.

"Our ballot question is in advance of the city's decision on municipalization, ensuring that voters remain in control over the amount of debt the city can take on in the event they choose to start up their own utility," he said in the news release.

Fox said people on both sides of the municipalization question can support voter control of debt limits.

To get the measure on the November ballot, supporters would have to get signatures from 5 percent of registered voters in the city of Boulder -- 4,549 signatures -- and they would have 90 days from the date of filing to collect the necessary signatures.

Proponents of a new city electric utility said the measure is designed to appear innocuous but could have the effect of stopping municipalizaton before the city could even hold that next election.

State law says Boulder cannot begin condemnation proceedings if it is not prepared to pay at least its offering price for Xcel Energy's assets. If paying for those assets is contingent on another vote, it might make it difficult for Boulder to enter into negotiations to buy them.

"It effectively kills municipalization because it makes the condemnation process impossible to move forward," said John Spitzer, a Boulder resident and supporter of municipalization.

Spitzer said concerned activists are already organizing to fight the ballot measure, which they expect will draw support from Xcel.

City spokeswoman Sarah Huntley said the City Attorney's Office is reviewing the charter amendment language and its implications for condemnation proceedings.

Huntley said the amendment would make it hard to run a utility in a responsible way even if voters opted to move forward. The language appears to apply not just to the issuance of debt to buy Xcel's distribution system and start the utility, but to any future bonds the utility might issue for capital improvements or other investments.

"City staff is not aware of any other utility in the country that is required to seek voter approval each time it wishes to invest in the utility and its future," Huntley said. "This could have a crippling effect on the willingness of investors to participate in this otherwise potentially desirable enterprise and increase the rate the utility might have to pay. Even TABOR (the Colorado Taxpayer Bill of Rights), as restrictive as it is, allows enterprises like this utility to issue debt without an election."

Huntley said having another vote would be redundant.

"It's asking voters to vote again on something they already voted on," she said. "The city's position is that voters already told us we could issue debt for certain purposes, provided certain conditions are met."

Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Angelique Espinoza said the chamber does not have a position on the specific ballot language, but it supports the general idea of another vote.

"We're on board with the principle," she said. "It will have been a long time since the original vote was taken by the time all the costs are known."

Fox said the backers of the charter amendment are concerned residents of Boulder, not proxies for Xcel Energy. He said his group did meet with representatives of Xcel, but they have not heard yet what support, if any, they will receive from the energy company.

The five registered voters supporting the intent to circulate petitions are Fox, Diane Rees, Mary Collins, Brian Barrett and Michael Scott.

Xcel Energy spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo said the company was still deciding how to respond to the proposed charter amendment.

"As we've previously stated, Xcel Energy has always believed another vote is a good idea," she said. "We have discussed with the proponents their proposal and are taking it under consideration."

Boulder voters narrowly approved two ballot measures in November 2011, one raising the utility occupation tax to pay for researching municipalization and the other authorizing the City Council to create a municipal utility and issue bonds to pay for it. Those bonds would be paid back with revenue from electric bills, not from taxes.

Xcel Energy spent $960,689 in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat the 2011 ballot measures, which passed with 50.4 percent of the vote for the tax measure and 51.93 percent for the authorization measure. Proponents spent $106,760.

Former City Councilman Steve Pomerance, a supporter of municipalization and a Camera columnist, said every election gives Xcel the opportunity to spend more money to defeat municipalization.

"This is their chance to spend unlimited money on an election, and that's why they are doing it," he said. "On this alone, they will spend infinite money, and if it gets into the charter, they'll spend infinite money again on the vote on the bonds."

Pomerance noted that the content of the ballot measure is similar to issues raised in polling done earlier this year by Xcel.

Aguayo said she is not familiar with the poll questions and could not say what role poll information may have played in shaping the content of the ballot measure.

The City Council is scheduled to vote in August on whether to begin condemnation proceedings against Xcel to acquire the electrical distribution system within Boulder and in nearby unincorporated areas.

The scheduled date of that vote -- Aug. 6 -- is also the deadline for supporters of the charter amendment to file their signed petitions.

City officials have said they need two substations in unincorporated Boulder County that serve both city and county areas and delineated a service area map that includes roughly 5,800 county customers. The city already provides water and sewer service in some unincorporated areas.

Some county residents have expressed strong opposition to being included in a city utility, especially without a vote, but at a public hearing on municipalization in April, more county residents spoke in favor of the plan than against it.

Huntley said the city is convening a working group that includes county residents to work on the governance structure for the utility. However, there is no mechanism for the city to hold an election in a portion of the unincorporated area. The city would have to either try to form a special district or put the issue on the ballot for all Boulder County voters.

As the city continues its analysis of municipalization, a working group is meeting to look for areas of cooperation between Xcel and Boulder that could reduce the city's carbon footprint without the creation of a city electric utility.

Appelbaum said the charter amendment would circumvent the entire process Boulder has followed since the initial vote in 2011.

"I think Xcel realized a long time ago that they could not stop municipalization on its merits," he said. "The only way they can stop it is to spend large amounts of money to scare and confuse people at the ballot."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355 or meltzere@dailycamera.com.