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Public Utilities Commission, embroiled in taxi controversies, faces state audit

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Folks who have tried to start taxi companies in Denver -- an industry fraught with controversy -- often butt heads with the Public Utilities Commission. Lately, PUC officials seem to swing back and forth as to whether the city needs more taxis, and many of decisions appear to benefit the powerful existing cab companies. Now, state legislators will scrutinize how the PUC is handling taxis and the other industries, since the Legislative Audit Committee voted to audit the body.

The PUC is charged with keeping an eye on the state's public utilities, such as electric, gas, water and telecommunications, as well as transportation services such as railroads. Since taxis are considered a public service, the PUC regulates that, too. One of the main ways its done so is to restrict new companies from coming into the market in order to not force the existing operators out of business. In most states, this sort of protected monopoly for taxi companies comes at a price: state limits on how much the companies can charge their drivers. In Colorado, however, taxi companies like Yellow Cab and Metro Taxi enjoy the protection of the PUC, but the commission has refused to restrict how much these operators charge their drivers -- and many people say those rates are now sky high.

This is just one of the concerns that led Senator Steve King to request the state audit. "I think it was just an overall trend of questions that were arising on a number of different areas, from taxi cab companies to power plants to other issues," he says. "It seemed like there was a time period there where once a week, issues were coming up about the commission. They have never been audited before. And it's time."

According to the Legislative Audit Committee, the audit will focus on whether or not the PUC Commissioners operate with transparency and without conflict of interest. It will also scrutinize whether the "PUC Commissioners' expenditures are reasonable, appropriate, for allowable purposes, and in the best interests of the state" -- which begs the question: Has somebody been suggesting that the PUC Commissioners have been blowing inappropriate wads of cash?

Folks will have to wait and see as to what, if anything, the audit uncovers. In the meantime, questions about how the commission has handled the thorny issue of Denver cabs will keep on rolling.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Michael Hancock donations from Metro Taxi payback for opposing Mile High Cab?"

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