Xcel Energy has made a $300,000 donation to Voter Approval of Debt Limits, the group campaigning for Issue 310, a Boulder charter amendment that would require a vote on the total debt limit of any future municipal electric utility.

Xcel had been linked to the charter amendment from the moment supporters filed an intent to circulate petitions to place it on the ballot. The company polled the charter amendment language and has its own issue committee in support of the measure.

But this is the first time Xcel has made a significant donation to the group that conducted the petition drive and is campaigning for Issue 310.

Katy Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the group, said members reached out to Xcel Energy for help "to even the playing field" because opponents of the charter amendment and backers of municipalization had received a $60,000 donation from the Sierra Club and were raising money locally and across the country through crowdsourcing.

"We reached out to Xcel to just remind them that the opponents of our measure are putting a lot of resources into opposing us," Atkinson said. "If Xcel was going to get involved, now was the time. We needed to even the playing field."

Atkinson included money the city has spent on communications related to municipalization as money available to opponents of the amendment.

Boulder officials have maintained that all their communications are simply informational, and they say they have been careful not to advocate for or against the initiative charter amendment or a competing measure placed on the ballot by the Boulder City Council.

Representatives of Empower Our Future, a Boulder group opposing Issue 310, said they are not surprised by the donation. They said it makes explicit what they have always contended -- that the charter amendment is not about fiscal responsibility, but, rather, is an attempt by Xcel to stop municipalization in its tracks.

"It has been obvious that Xcel is behind (Voter Approval of Debt Limits) from the start, and Xcel's contributions prove that," said Ken Regelson, a member of Empower Our Future and an energy activist. "Xcel designed 310 to kill the process that Boulder voters approved in 2011, a process that pursues an energy future that is cleaner, cheaper and more reliable."

'Tip of the iceberg'

Issue 310 would require another vote on the debt limit of a municipal utility before Boulder could issue debt to pay for it. That election could only be held in an odd-numbered year, and residents of unincorporated Boulder County who would be customers of a city-run utility would have to be allowed to vote in that election.

Proponents of the charter amendment say it introduces a needed measure of accountability to voters before they take on significant debt, while opponents say it would make it so difficult to issue debt that it would be hard to run the utility or enter condemnation proceedings.

"We're going to be talking to the people of Boulder about what this measure does and doesn't do," Atkinson said. "We're talking about a lot of money and we really need to be careful how we proceed. There are a lot of people in this town who would like a final vote on the debt before we move forward."

The various issue committees have to file campaign finance reports today. Regelson said voters will see that Empower Our Future has mostly raised money from small donors. However, he said the pro-municipalization campaign is in the position now that it was in at the end of the 2011 election, in which supporters of a municipal utility spent $106,760.

Xcel Energy spent $960,689 on the 2011 campaign.

"We're certainly going to do our best," said John Spitzer, another member of Empower Our Future. "I have a feeling based on the last election that the $300,000 is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what they plan to spend."

New Era Colorado, a progressive political group that focuses on mobilizing young voters, also has entered the charter amendment campaign. Executive Director Steve Fenberg said the group has raised roughly $190,000 from more than 5,000 donors through a crowdsourcing campaign that went viral.

'Get our message out'

Atkinson said the pro-municipalizaton camp is getting money from around the country and even outside the country and is in no position to criticize Voter Approval of Debt Limits for getting money from a corporation.

"They seem to think that some money is dirty and some money isn't," she said. "We welcome Xcel's involvement because it allows us to get our message out."

Xcel Energy spokewoman Michelle Aguayo said the company decided to donate money after seeing there was enough community support to get the measure on the ballot.

She said the money does not come from ratepayers in the sense that the spending is not incorporated into the calculations that determine rates.

"We are very impressed that they were able to get the question on the ballot relying on financial support from Boulder voters and businesses," Aguayo said. "We continue to view the city's plan as extremely risky and costly. And we have always been supportive of allowing affected citizens of the city's plan an opportunity to review and express their preferences on the plan once the final details and costs were known."

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