By Sandy Barnes
Residents who came to voice objections about a proposed franchise agreement between Berthoud and Xcel Energy filled the Town Board chamber at the Tuesday, July 28 meeting. If approved by trustees, the 20-year agreement would increase the electric bills of Xcel customers in Town by 3 percent.
“Asking residents to come up with an extra 3 percent is asking a lot,” said resident Melissa O’Leary who said she was representing about a dozen other Berthoud families, some of whom were out of work. “It’s my opinion that a fee of 3 percent be at least put to a vote,” stated resident Judy Lane.
Resident Milan Karspeck, who serves on the Town Utility Advisory Board, said that at its last meeting the UAB members decided not to recommend the Xcel franchise to the Town Board. Karspeck said he believed he was already paying a 3 percent sales tax to the Town for the gas and electric service Xcel provides to him.
As Town Attorney Bruce Fickel pointed out, the discussion of the Xcel franchise did not take place at an official public hearing because the utility company had not yet published the required three-week notice. However, because so many residents had turned out to address the issue, Fickel said it would be permissible for the board to hear their concerns.
While listening to residents’ comments, Mayor Pro Tem David Gregg and other trustees explained the reason for considering the franchise: the Town’s dwindling revenues. “We struggle with paying for basic services,” said Gregg. “Our revenues are down 15 percent this year,” he added. Gregg suggested the Town continue to negotiate and deliberate with Xcel on the franchise agreement.
“I personally support David’s suggestion to continue to negotiate,” said Trustee Jeff Hindman. In the past 10 years since Berthoud voters narrowly defeated a measure to sign a franchise agreement, the Town has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenues, he said. “The utility franchise fee is a normal part of business,” he remarked.
Hindman also addressed a concern expressed by Prairie Star developer Scott Sarbaugh, who said that an Xcel franchise would negatively impact his plans to serve the proposed project with solar energy. “Xcel is leading the way on solar power,” remarked Hindman.
While stating his opposition, Trustee Dick Shepard said, “This is a subject very near and dear to my heart. I proposed a couple months ago, or a month, to table this whole franchise agreement.” He went on to add, “This is the wrong time in this economy, I believe, for us to pass a 3 percent [increase].”
Trustee Michael Patrick agreed with Shepard and suggested that the Utility Advisory Board continue reviewing the franchise agreement. Patrick said a 20-year, inflexible agreement would dramatically limit the Town as changes in energy supply and delivery occur. “It’s still our community and all of us have to figure out how to pay for essential services,” Patrick added. “This year we have a substantial reduction in sales tax and are getting to the end of reserve funds.”
The board voted 4-2 to refer the franchise matter to the Utility Advisory Board for further study and to take no action on the agreement for six months. Trustee John Bauer said that both he and Hindman opposed the motion because of the six-month stipulation, which he believed could limit negotiations.