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September 27, 2020

9/11/2020 8:44:00 AM
New Water & Light utility GM gets job offer

North Branch Water and Light Commission voted unanimously last week to extend the General Manager job to  Hibbing public utility official Scott Hautala.  Chair Terry Smith remarked that as a member of the personnel subcommittee  which interviewed the candidate he feels Hautala will be a real asset.

The North Branch Water and Light Commission also thanked the interim GM Bob Cockriel, for his professionalism and leadership.  Cockriel was signed on for 12 weeks, which had about doubled by the last day of his service, last week.  He covered for Water and Light GM Mark Petsche, who was unceremoniously relieved of duties.

Petsche was later granted an official retroactive “retirement” date. Financial terms of his legal settlement have not been disclosed.
Fortunately, WSB engineering could put Cockriel forward to fill in as GM.

Under terms of loan covenants mandate the utility was required have a “trained manager on staff.”

The commission also voted  last week to solicit for a new audit firm.  Every several years it’s good practice to see what other professional service providers have to offer, so utility staff will develop requests and send them to known firms that work in the utility field and bring back proposals for the commission to consider.  This would be to audit year-2020 financials.

In a discussion about unpaid accounts, finances director Brenda Jepsen gave the commission a choice-- the state has a program where it will garnish the past due amounts from peoples’ state tax refunds and lottery winnings for a flat fee of $15 per account.  Or, the utility can hire a collections agency for anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of collected amounts.

The commissioners agreed the state method sounded the most cost-effective.

They also discussed late notices and shut-off alerts and how the entire water and light  billing process works.  There are non-utility fees on the utility bill,  for instance:  stormwater and sanitary sewer and North Branch has imposed a franchise fee (like an extra sales tax) A large part of the utility remittance gets divided out and sent to North Branch city hall.  

City code calls for bills to be in the name of property owners, so that unpaid sums can be “certified” to property tax and get recorded with the deed, to be collected when a parcel changes hands.  The utility, however, has not been applying that city law to its billing and Jepsen reports there are many delinquent accounts in renters’ names.  She said the utility attorney is writing a draft for new policy to correct this.  The other utilities, East Central Electric, etc. are being contacted to see if they use any additional methods for billing efficiencies.

There are many thousands of dollars in old accounts that probably can’t be collected because they are past due more than six years and with only renters’ names on record, it is not likely the person will be located.

The policy discussion will continue at the utility regular meeting Sept. 16 when the attorney’s draft is ready to review.

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