While Longmont activists successfully landed a fracking ban question on the November ballot this week, one city council member hopes to put another initiative before the voters asking them how they would like to be taxed when the city loses a lawsuit over the ban.
The group “Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont” announced Aug. 7 that it had collected enough signatures to put its proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” on the Nov. 6 ballot.
But city council member Bonnie Finley had raised concerns about how Longmont might pay for a suit defending an outright ban at the council’s July 24 meeting. She asked City Attorney Eugene Mei what funds are available if a mineral rights owner sues the city over the loss of those rights, and Mei said Longmont’s risk management loss fund currently totals about $1.36 million. Finley said she had been told it would cost the city at least $4 million a year to defend itself against such suits, and she asked what the deadline would be for city council to pass a resolution placing an item on the ballot authorizing the city to raise those funds. Mei replied that the last city council meeting at which such a resolution could be approved is Sept. 4.
Finley told Boulder Weekly Wednesday that she is still doing research on the matter, in part by contacting Colorado counties and other local governments that have been the target of such suits.
“I’m not worried about the lawsuit itself,” Finley says. “I think we have money for the lawyers. What we don’t have money for, I don’t think, are the damages. Should fracking be banned altogether in Longmont, that’s taking away the mineral rights owners’ rights to access their minerals. So they would in turn sue us because of the loss of their right.”
She said she was told by Greeley’s city attorney that the town was sued for similar reasons about 20 years ago, and the damages sought initially were $200 million, although the mineral rights owner eventually gained access to the minerals and settled for $300,000.
“We don’t have that kind of money,” Finley says. “That worries me. That could bankrupt the city.”
Her preliminary proposal is to give voters a choice of three methods to raise funds if the city’s loss pool is ever extinguished due to a fracking ban lawsuit: a mill levy (property tax) increase, a sales tax hike or a fee on Longmont residents’ utility bills that would go toward creating a legal defense fund.
When asked whether such a question would deter citizens from voting for the ban, Finley replied, “They just need to go in with their eyes wide open. Everyone needs to know what the facts are.”
She also denies that her move to add a ballot question is intended as a scare tactic to defeat the proposed ban.
“Not at all,” Finley says. “It’s simply to cover the city’s fiscal responsibility. If we have what Greeley had, and we don’t have that money, we need to find it, and there’s only one place it can come from. It’s not like we can have a bake sale.”
Finley, who works for the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, which basically serves as the state’s chamber of commerce, says she has not discussed her initiative with representatives of the pro-industry Colorado Oil and Gas Association or the state regulatory body that’s currently suing the city over its recently approved oil and gas regulations, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. But she acknowledged that she speaks with industry insiders regularly as part of her job.
“It’s always hard when people ask me questions like that,” Finley says. “I work for the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, so I talk to industry people whenever they come in for meetings or whatever, but I have not talked to them about damages.”
She did acknowledge that she has discussed the issue with Colorado Municipal League attorney Geoff Wilson.
Finley says she never feels pressure from the oil and gas industry, despite reports from other council members about such efforts.
“The only people who have threatened me are the anti-fracking people,” Finley says. “I’ve gotten nasty phone calls and nasty emails. … The people who are nasty are on the other side.”
Michael Bellmont, a spokesperson for the Our Longmont group, issued the following response to Finley’s effort: “This initiative is meant to scare the people of Longmont. It is intended to make the Longmont voter and taxpayer believe that they have to choose between their health and safety and their wallets.”
In a press release, Our Longmont also called on Finley to resign her seat because of her conflicts of interest in being employed by CACI.