Both sides in what is expected to be a hotly contested and expensive battle over an Xcel Energy-backed charter amendment on utility debt limits have turned to television with cable ad buys.
Television is rarely used in local campaigns, but both Voter Approval of Debt Limits, the group backing the debt limit charter amendment, and Empower Our Future, opponents of the amendment who support a municipal utility, have ads running on cable TV targeted at Boulder voters.
The Voter Approval of Debt Limits ad opens with stacks of money piling up in front of the Flatirons. "Startup costs for a new utility?" a woman's voice says. "Up to $405 million or more. The city doesn't really know how much."
As the voice tells viewers that's "bad news for Boulder ratepayers" who will foot the bill, the screen shifts to a couple with shocked expressions on their faces, evidently from their electric bill.
Question 310 would require a vote on the total utility debt limit before any money could be borrowed.
The woman's voice says that's "good news for Boulder ratepayers" and tells them to vote yes on 310, "the Ratepayer Protection Plan."
The ad closes with a smiling woman looking at a calculator, apparently pleased with her lower electric bill.
Katy Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the group, said they put the campaign on hold during the flood, but now it's time to get the group's message before voters.
"Our supporters were anxious that we get our message out there," she said. "It's all about voter approval. It's not about killing municipalization. It's not about the things that our opponents claim it is about. This is a huge undertaking, and it's about letting the people who will be paying all this debt have some say in the debt."
Supporters of municipalization say the requirement to hold a vote on all debt could make it hard to go through condemnation proceedings because the city could not guarantee it would be able to pay even its own opening offer. It also could make it difficult to issue debt for emergency repairs after a disaster, they say.
The $405 million number referenced in the ad is the upper end of startup costs modeled by the city in its analysis of municipalization. At that level of cost, the analysis found it would be more difficult for the municipal utility to offer comparable or lower rates than Xcel Energy.
The City Council has placed a competing measure on the ballot that asks voters to authorize $214 million for acquisition. The actual costs -- including the price of Xcel's distribution system and any stranded costs -- will be determined by the courts and federal regulators.
The Empower Our Future ad also opens with a view of the Flatirons, but in that ad, storm clouds gather over the mountains as a male voice says, "We all want a clean energy future, but the Xcel-backed Amendment 310 kills that."
Supporters of a municipal utility then talk about the potential to provide more renewable energy and warn voters about corporate influence.
"I'm upset that a corporation is trying to buy the election, instead of focusing on the clean energy future I want for my son," Myriah Conroy, a business consultant who serves on the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, says in reference to Xcel's substantial financial support for 310.
"I want Boulder to be the leader in clean energy innovation," Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum says.
"Corporate interests have introduced fear, uncertainty and doubt into the election," says Brook Aitken, an independent cinematographer identified in the ad as a business owner. "Don't believe it."
John Spitzer, a member of Empower Our Future, said the group has another ad in the works. The videos are being put together with volunteer labor, keeping costs low.
The group's pro-municipalization, anti-310 ads will run during University of Colorado football games and during Monday Night Football through the end of October, Spitzer said.
Atkinson declined to discuss the size of Voter Approval of Debt Limit's ad buy or where the ads are running.
The ad has been seen on CNN.
Information made available by Comcast shows Voter Approval of Debt Limits has bought $100,004 in ad time.
Lori Walker, political account coordinator for Comcast, said she couldn't say how many ads that buys because the rates vary based on the channel, the program and the time of day.
Voters Against Xcel Buying Elections, a group associated with New Era Colorado, has made a $15,008 ad buy, to start next week.
Empower Our Future had made a $1,602 ad buy as of Monday. Members of the group said they plan to spend several thousand more.
"We're very concerned about the amount of money Xcel is spending on full-page ads and on media buys," Spitzer said. "The basic strategy is to not answer the basic questions, but to sow fear and doubt among Boulder voters."
Political consultant Floyd Ciruli said it's rare to use television in local races because traditionally it was hard to target. Ad buys were for entire media markets, when the number of voters trying to be reached was in the tens of thousands.
But cable ad buys can be targeted to households in specific jurisdictions.
"Television remains one of the most persuasive forms of political communication," Ciruli said. "The power of the video image can do amazing things that scare people, that warn people, that cajole people."
The goal should be to have voters see your ad five to seven times before the election.
Ciruli said it's not surprising that both sides have turned to television, and voters should expect more money to be spent between now and November.
"There are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake," he said. "You have City Council members ideologically committed to this. Xcel also has millions at stake."