Boulder ends 10-year municipalization effort as voters OK historic deal with Xcel

Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020 (Updated Friday, Nov. 6, 2020)

After 10 years of court battles, regulatory proceedings and public hearings, Boulder’s effort to create a city-owned utility is officially on hold. Voters approved an historic settlement with Xcel Energy, passing ballot measure 2C to trigger the reinstatement of a franchise agreement abandoned a decade earlier.

As of late Thursday, 2C was up by 3,512 votes, with more than 65,000 ballots counted in city of Boulder precincts. Across all precincts, turnout was 86%, with several areas turning out more than 90% of active, registered voters.

2C – Unofficial results
As of 11:47 p.m. Thursday
28,401 yes (53.3%)
24,889 no (46.7%)
Total votes: 53,290
Source: Boulder County Clerk and Recorder

City officials sent out a press release Wednesday evening announcing the likely passage of 2C, which was leading by 3,247 votes with more than 58,000 ballots counted in Boulder. “If the result holds as expected, Boulder will pause its efforts to create a local electric utility and Boulder residents and businesses will remain Xcel customers in a new partnership,” it read.

The release followed the Daily Camera‘s declaration that results were unlikely to shift; 53% of voters approved of 2C as of 5:54 p.m. That margin did wane through Tuesday and into Wednesday, as more votes were tallied; the latest ballots showed and even 50-50 split for and against.

An increase in late “no” votes is consistent with strong university student support for municipalization in the past. Susan Peterson, spokesperson for pro-muni groups Empower Our Future / No on 2C for Local Power, said campaign ads were most popular among the 18-24 and 55+ age groups.

Peterson declined a request for additional comment, amending her statement from early Wednesday: “The important thing is that Boulder come together to use all our creativity to solve the climate crisis, in partnership with Xcel.”

Committee for Boulder’s Great Green Deal, which advocated a yes on 2C, issued a release of its own Wednesday evening.

“The green franchise deal with Xcel Energy which provides us with many benefits and pauses the municipalization effort,” it read in part, attributed to co-organizer and former Boulder mayor Leslie Durgin. “That means Boulder will stop pouring millions of dollars into legal and engineering fees and get right to work on climate action, safety improvements for our community and savings in the city budget.”

Boulder has spent $28.75 million to gather permission and information needed for a takeover of Xcel’s physical assets — power lines, poles, transformers, substations, etc. — in the city. How much that would ultimately cost is still unknown; staff said a final estimate is still at least two years away.

A settlement with Xcel preserves work done so far on the muni and allows Boulder to opt out of the franchise at several points in the future.

Work is at a logical stopping point, according to Steve Catanach, director of climate initiatives.

“The engineering work is fundamentally complete or, in the case of the city’s substation design, (at) a good stopping point,” he wrote in response to emailed questions. “We are currently planning how best to archive all of the information we have so that it can be re-activated if needed.”

City employees who worked on the muni will be retained, Catanach said; their focus will shift to the city’s other climate work, such as zero waste or emissions reductions. Seven staff members devote a significant portion of their time (more than 50%) to the project, and more than a dozen others spend between 1% and 20% of their working hours on the muni, according to the most recent quarterly report. Municipalization hours are paid for by the UOT; work on non-muni projects is not.

“We currently are not planning any reductions and feel confident that the skills that our team possess will be necessary for the success of the partnership with Xcel,” Catanach wrote.

The settlement creates a structure for pilot programs and other clean energy initiatives, as well as local grid planning and political lobbying, that will involve Xcel and the city working together. Voters comfortably passed 2D, which will extend the muni’s key funding source through 2025 and repurpose it to further Boulder’s climate goals. Utility assistance for lower-income residents will also be funded through the tax extension.

2D – Unofficial results
As of 11:47 p.m. Thursday
30,476 yes (56.74%)
23,232 no (43.26%)
Total votes: 53,708
Source: Boulder County Clerk and Recorder

A franchise still has to be approved by state regulators. Boulder expects that to happen in early 2021.

Mayor Sam Weaver, in the city’s release, spoke to the divisiveness of the issue over the past decade. Public hearings often lasted hours; muni critics and supporters frequented council chambers to lambast their opponents’ stance. Key votes were often decided by thin margins, and campaign spending topped that of other issues many years.

“We appreciate the passionate efforts on both sides of this issue and recognize that while many in our community celebrate, others are disappointed,” said Weaver, via the prepared statement. “I pledge to redouble our efforts to unify our community. Climate and energy issues are urgent and difficult to face divided, and I hope that we can come together as a community to face challenges and seize opportunities.” 

Emily Sandoval, the city’s climate initiatives’ spokesperson, said she is working on that.

“I am beginning to think through ways to help the community close this chapter,” she wrote in response to emailed questions. “So many have been involved, and I think we want to create opportunities for folks to share their perspectives and memories.”

Author’s note: This story has been updated with the latest results and additional information from the city of Boulder.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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