Prospect of Boulder, Xcel settlement excites some local leaders, while tight timeline concerns others

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Timing plays a role in politics, which is why some Boulder petitioners have targeted this year’s ballot, featuring a presidential election, to get their measures certified for community electors to decide.

Municipal utility advocates also say it may be a reason for City Council to hesitate on sending voters a referendum on entering a new franchise agreement with Xcel Energy, which, if approved, would end the endeavor to start a city-owned power provider that Boulder began 10 years ago.

With just more than a month for Council to finalize the ballot, both resident Regina Cowles and former mayor Suzanne Jones said they had concerns about how quickly voters must digest the details of the settlement agreement city staff and Xcel have put on the table for Council to consider referring to voters.

There are just weeks for residents to study the proposal, they noted, but there are major distractions in the community. It could lock Boulder into a 20-year deal while offering the city six exit points over its lifetime, and thus as many chances to get back where the city stands now — with no franchise with a private utility and a path of intense litigation to clear before starting a municipal one.

Namely, both acknowledged responses to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact are demanding local officials and residents’ attention.

“The decision to municipalize is a generational one. It will outlast the pandemic and the recession. To get off the municipalization course is not something that should be rushed or done lightly,” Jones said. “That said, we’ve always kept our door open to discussions with Xcel and I appreciate the effort that has gone into these negotiations. Everyone should take a close look at it. We’re obligated to look closely, so we will, even though the timing is horrible.”

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Yates — who has consistently disagreed with the exploration of a municipal utility and helped lead settlement talks with Xcel along with Mayor Sam Weaver — gave credit to the city’s litigation against Xcel for making the power provider more amenable to the city’s desires.

“I can’t imagine another city receiving the types of things that we’re being offered here by Xcel had we not pursued it. While I opposed municipalization, I do have to acknowledge it has turned out pretty well for the city,” Yates said.

So why not keep going with the work to leave Xcel and see if it sweetens the deal in another year or two? Yates believes there are financial reasons. The city staff this month reported that without more funding, it would be impossible to hold a vote on establishing a municipal utility next year.

“We’re out of money,” he said. “We’ve spent $25 million of the $29 million that the voters gave us. Last year we spent $5 million on the (municipal utility), and this year we’ll spend another $4 million. At this pace, we’ll run out of money in the next year, and the muni work won’t be done yet. This is a pretty darn good deal. I don’t think the deal will get any better by spending our last $4 million. … This is the pinnacle of opportunity. We should not squander it.”

Justin Brant, an energy policy professional and chair of the Boulder Environmental Advisory Board, has favored a conversion to a municipal utility, but also sees the length of the project as a possible reason to strike a deal.

“Personally, I am generally supportive of municipalization. But I also think given the sort of drawn out legal process that a settlement likely makes sense, if it meets the goals of the city environmentally,” Brant said, adding he has not yet studied the proposal in detail.

The prospect of a settlement excited Boulder Chamber President and CEO John Tayer.

“From everything I’ve seen, it looks like a win for our community and the environment,” Tayer said. “We know it’s better to be working together in partnership with them to achieve these goals rather than spend all our resources and time in a confrontation situation. … I can’t say definitely what the recipe was that led to this current agreement. But I do know that both parties deserve credit for stepping out of their comfort zones and coming together to move forward.”