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Shelter foes point to e-mail

June 20, 2001

A 2-year-old e-mail has reignited passions over a plan to build a homeless shelter in a south downtown neighborhood.

To project opponents, the Sept. 28, 1999, electronic message from Colorado Springs Utilities Director Phil Tollefson to staff members suggests secret dealings that confirm their beliefs they had no say in the process.

To Tollefson and the other party involved, the El Pomar Foundation, nothing inappropriate took place. Tollefson said it was a typical staff conversation.

Opponents to the project obtained the e-mail through a public-records request. The message was sent two months before plans were made public to build a shelter in the Mill Street Neighborhood south of Drake Power Plant plant.

El Pomar has pledged $5 million for the project, which would be run by the American Red Cross and include a soup kitchen, health clinic and other services.

The e-mail discusses early negotiations about a long-term "cheap" lease of the site to the Red Cross, as well as the utility's desire for El Pomar to help purchase nearby land it wanted for a rail spur to the power plant. The utility later bought property for the spur itself. Those negotiations were made public.

The focus of the new controversy centers on Tollefson's suggestion in the e-mail that El Pomar "consider our willingness to consider the idea a major factor in their decision to help fund relocation of the Gas Dept due to Confluence Park."

Never in nearly a year of public debate about the project did the city's desire to move the 12-acre gas department out of the 30-acre proposed Confluence Park come up.

Rickie Stuart, a Mill Street resident and project opponent, said of the e-mail: "This was September. If these kind of conversations were going on, they should have been made public. I feel as though things were done behind closed doors."

Tollefson, however, said ideas about projects are floated all the time. He said it was his idea -- not El Pomar's -- to ask the foundation to help pay for the gas department move.

"I fail to see the big conspiracy," Tollefson said Tuesday.

In fact, the city asked El Pomar in October to help fund the relocation of the gas department. The foundation informed the city in February that its trustees unanimously rejected the proposal, El Pomar Chairman Bill Hybl said. When asked by The Gazette whether there was any link between El Pomar's support of Confluence Park and the homeless shelter, Hybl said there was none.

"I just know what El Pomar did and what they did not do, and both are important here," Hybl said.

Councilman Richard Skorman, when first told of the e-mail, said the public should have known about the gas plant talks. But he said he changed his mind after talking to Tollefson on Monday. Skorman said if a private group like El Pomar wants to discuss possible scenarios, then doesn't go forward with them, the details needn't be made public.

By Eric Gorski/The Gazette, Copyright © 1999-2001, The Gazette, a Freedom Communications, Inc. Company


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