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August 3, 2020

7/31/2020 12:01:00 PM
New W&L Commission meets for first time

The new five-member North Branch Water & Light Commission met last week for the first time.  Chris Bibeau’s seat was the only carryover term retained from the discarded three-person group.  He is joined by appointees Thomas Hals, Nathan Keech, Mic Dahlberg and Terry Smith.

The first order was selecting Terry Smith as the utility commission chair and Mic Dahlberg is vice-chair.

Smith, a relatively new resident in North Branch, is a past mayor of Forest Lake, and brings with him the deepest experience in government meeting procedure and agenda etiquette.

Nathan Keech asked to change Water & Light’s longstanding meeting date that’s been the third Tuesday afternoons. He didn’t know the commission’s meeting was regularly held on a Tuesday, which is a conflict for him. he said.

The commission voted to re-schedule regular monthly meetings for the third Wednesday, at 5 p.m.  

The meetings are at North Branch city hall.

North Branch Mayor Jim Swenson welcomed the newly created five-member utility commission, saying the city appreciates the men’s willingness to get involved.

The five-member structure now offers more flexibility in assigning subcommittee work etc.  When the utility commission was just three members, there was a single person allowed as liaison on personnel matters to avoid a quorum. The personnel subcommittee is a very important part of what’s happening in the utility now, which is in the midst of an approximately six-month search for a new General Manager;  plus a union and new contract is being formed by employees.

On motion by Dahlberg the personnel subcommittee was created 4-1 with members Smith and Dahlberg appointed, and Keech voting no.

As for the status of the new General Manager candidate, there was not much to update.

A finalist was being pursued but the last utility commission didn’t get to the point of an agreement and securing a firm commitment from the applicant.  

Water & Light’s Acting GM, Bob Cockriel, who is providing about two to three days a week oversight of the utility, in addition to an employee who was promoted to oversee the electric side of the operations-- reported the hire is “not moving forward” as of last week.

In another personnel issue, Dahlberg questioned the recent hiring of the commission’s newly-created job of  financial director.  The utility had relied on services and consult from North Branch city financial director previously.  

Dahlberg said in his 30-plus years in public sector management (retired from Chisago County as county engineer) he never saw a public employee hired without first posting and advertising the job.  He wondered if the other members were interested in re-looking at this  “in the interests of transparency."

Chair Smith suggested the members move on and that the contract written by the former commission is for 18 months, and can’t be undone now.

There was no monthly operations report from the interim General Manager.

Cockriel said the utility had to generate its own electric power for a few days during the July heat wave (normally NBWL is on the grid powered by the region’s co-op  SMPPA) and things “were a little hectic” as far as operations.

The finance director presented some data as part of her agenda item,  and called attention to the percentages of revenues and expenses at mid-year.  She felt the numbers were concerning.

The Interim GM clarified, however, that utilities’ have fluctuating cash flow and budget comparisons at this time of year are not very indicative of where things fall at the end of the year.

The greatest revenue influx is towards end of summer, so being down in revenues now is not a big deal. And, for purposes of drafting the 2021 budget a utility’s five to 10 year financial picture should be analyzed and considered.

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