Municipal Utilities - CSPM

Municipal Utilities

From the founding of Colorado Springs in 1871, water services were developed and maintained by the city. However, gas and electricity were provided by private companies. The result was a patchwork quilt of poorly capitalized competing entities with unreliable service and high prices. Citizen protests led by Lillian Kerr and the Colorado Springs Civic League spurred local demand for public control. In 1924, voters approved the creation of a centralized public utility for the delivery of electricity, gas, water, and sewer.

– From the CSPM Curator of History

The question of whether to provide water, electricity, and gas through public utilities or through private companies was hotly contested as Colorado Springs grew. A bond proposal to build a municipal water system was rejected by voters in 1875, but a second attempt approved in 1878. From that point on, the city built a vast public water infrastructure system, but gas and electricity services remained in private companies. The Colorado Springs Gas and Coke Company incorporated in 1879 and provided coal gas for heating and streetlights in a plant on West Cucharras Street, later moved to South Conejos Street. Commercial electric service began when the El Paso Electric Light Company organized in 1886 with their first powerhouse on Colorado Avenue between Tejon & Nevada. A second, larger generating plant was erected on the northeast corner of Sahwatch and Cucharras Streets in 1889. This company became the Citizens Light, Heat, and Power Company in 1900, which by 1910 had consolidated light, heat, and electricity and built a new power plant near the Papeton coal mines. In 1905 the city issued a franchise to a hydro-electric power plant in Manitou Springs, with a second built upslope in 1924. Despite these services, the relationship between the city and the privately-owned utility deteriorated as citizens complained of overpriced electricity. In 1923 the franchise lease was up on the Manitou hydro plant, and the call for public ownership of the electric utilities system grew. After serving as Governor, in 1924 businessman Oliver Shoup led opposition to the city purchasing the electric company. The Gazette called the argument put forth by the “socialistic” city council for a public utility “as specious as any document that ever went out from a socialist organization seeking to abolish private enterprise.” Despite this, in 1924 voters approved a municipal utility for gas, electricity, water, and sewer. They passed a $1.25 million bond to expand the electrical system and bought the electric utility in July 1925. A new steam Municipal Power Plant, renamed the Martin Drake Power Plant in 1960, began operation in October, 1925. Coal gas was superseded by natural gas pipelines from Texas, but voters turned down another offer in 1928 to sell its gas infrastructure to Colorado Interstate Gas. In 1939 the city created the Department of Public Utilities. Each year Colorado Springs Utilities pays “contribution in lieu of taxes” to city’s general fund.

Generously Submitted by Dr. John Harner, Professor of Geography & Environmental Studies, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

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