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February 22, 2020

12/27/2019 11:30:00 AM
North Branch Water & Light drops base water fee $5 per month

The year 2020 will bring slightly reduced water fees for residents of North Branch. A reduction of $5 per month or $60 annually, was acted on in a special session December 26 of the utility commissioners. The reduced fee is effective as of January billing.

Commissioners Schaps and Neider voted 2-0 with member Chris Bibeau absent. The meeting was called because the utility still hadn’t adopted a budget for next year. Commissioners wanted to do so in the context of findings presented by an outside fiscal secretary, Brenda Jepsen. Water and Light Commissioner Kelly Neider also contributed substantial useful information that she gathered herself.

Customers of North Branch Water and Light have been paying relatively steep water-related bills, compared to other public utility operations in similar sized communities.

The reasoning was that older debt service that the utility incurred was required to be funded, after North Branch undertook extensive watertower and infrastructure work and water treatment plant installation.

Projected new hook-ups that were supposed to help fund the operations and debt were delayed, mostly attributed to the real estate recession era. No new houses no new customers. A couple major commercial water customers also closed or relocated.

The Water and Light Commission recently asked for outside review of 2020 budget line items and accepted most of the recommendations to cut costs , resulting in being able to adopt the monthly fee cut.

The two commissioners balanced $124,000 in revenues lost; by scaling back healthcare benefits of Water and Light employees and instituting a salary freeze temporarily.

Jepsen reported the HSA and benefits support provided to individual and family healthcare packages are not what she sees in the industry normally. Where she’d expect contributions for city staff to be at $1,000 for single and $1,500 for family Health Savings Accounts annually the utility was providing $3,500 and $7,000.

And a more usual split on premiums would be 60-40 employee to city share. Water & Light was paying 100 percent. The vote last week re-set the ratio approximately at staff 61 to 39 percent utility liability. This saves about $25,000.

The HSA contributions were dropped to singles $1,250 and $2,500 for a family policy saving $44,500.

The commission also will continue to look into how on-call staff are scheduled and compensated, and curtailing Paid Time Off hours accumulating and which are un-used. Manager Mark Petsche said this is more complicated than it appears when dealing with skilled workers in electricity. He said staff in the electric side can probably be trained to handle much of what on-call situations there are on the water side, but water staff can not be relied on for most of the electric emergencies. Any electric network incident involving 600 volts or more requires two employees, he added.

Neider also suggested a system of work orders and numbering project files to better track who is being charged how much and determining when the utility covers services and when the services are outside of normal customer response and should be billed.

Further-- the need to trim communications costs was noted. Commission members questioned cell phone issuance policy.

Neider, who serves as the city council liaison to Water and Light, stressed that all city departments went through deep budget cuts and personnel reductions in the past 10 years as North Branch dealt with extraordinary debt from an era of development expenditures and land acquisition deals. She said this is only being done to be more fair and equitable.

As an elected official she hears complaints about the cost of water more than just about anything else. Granted $5 per month is not a huge sum, she added, but it is time to “...give some relief to users of the (water) system” who are feeling the financial burden.

North Branch has a unique public utility set-up. The electric and water systems are overseen by the commission as a stand-alone, quasi governmental unit. North Branch has its own generation facility and also belongs to SMMPA, a multi-county electric cooperative. Portions of the city are served by another electricity provider-- East Central Electric.

The city council has one seat on a three-member utility commission. The City of North Branch is in control of the sewer utility. Wastewater functions are city-built and managed by a city public works department and these are city employees.

Officials involved on all levels have agreed to try for special enabling legislation from the state lawmakers, when the legislature convenes in February, to expand the utility commission to five members.

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