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August 1, 2021

6/18/2021 1:02:00 PM
Water and Light Commissioners recommend "winding down" utility

The three remaining commissioners who oversee the North Branch Water and Light utility voted unanimously June 16 to “wind down” the utility operations.  Operations will be unaffected in the near term pending when “further action” might be taken by commissioners.  The motion stated by Commissioner James Baxter declares the commission recommends winding down the utility, under status quo conditions until “further action by the commission.”

But there was no definition  for what “wind down”  will actually manifest as. We know it won’t be the alternative action, which was to “build up” the utility.  

Nobody supported this.

Commission Chairman Nathan Keech remarked the work group exploring the utility and city coming together, agreed that the utility is “not sustainable.” Investing towards making this a more viable would make sense if the utility had territory in which to greatly expand, Keech noted.
There was about a two-minute discussion regarding sale of the utility electric division.

Yet, there was also talk about “cross training” so employees could be skilled and be called upon to work in both the electric and water operations.  It was even mentioned how current utility workers could  be tapped to drive city snowplow trucks, as a “benefit” in merging the utility with city public works, which was something the exploratory work group reportedly discussed.    The work group met May 26 and June 9, according to Utility Commission Chair Keech.

If this process adheres to prior direction approved by the three commissioners in setting up the exploratory work group,  the North Branch City Council serves as the final review on whatever the commission sends up as an accepted “transition plan”  Council would act on this formally.

Water and Light General Manager Scott Hautala strongly recommended to the commissioners how highly imperative it is to first decide if the electric division assets will be sold.  There is no sense in pursuing cross training if there won’t still be a local power distribution and generation system.

With multiple new housing projects pending and/or underway in North Branch— Water and Light has a non-optional role in providing its service area the necessary electric infrastructure, Hautala continued.  

Streetlight work is also on-going in summer months and in the past few days the utility had to process 54 move-in and move outs.  It is a “very busy time,” the general manager noted.  

The water system is in the middle of some major improvements with the water tower rehab (by the outlet mall) underway and the watermain replacement at County State Highway 30 and 95 picking-up speed after MidSummer Days.  

Lack of rainfall means the utility has been producing a “record amount of water” Hautala continued, while addressing system needs in new plats and keeping up with maintenance and operations.

“Real life decisions have to be made,” Hautala advised.

Another issue is  utility employees have contracts through December.  

Hautala said fortunately this is a negotiating year so issues may be able to be more easily addressed in  context. He commented the staff are aware the utility is being scrutinized behind the scenes for dissolution, adding, “change naturally creates reservations” He stressed though, staff are staying calm and carrying on.

The filling of two vacant seats on the utility commission was scheduled to be discussed at the city council meeting June 22.  Applications were being accepted under a deadline of June 18 but informational materials in the council agenda packet released before Friday presented three applicants for consideration;   Phil Carlson, Sean Peterson and Lynn Wilson are vying for the two seats open.

Council will also select “one or two” members to serve as city representatives on the transition plan team.

Under state law,  a citizen referendum is required to abolish the utility commission itself, even if utility assets are liquidated or transitioned to a different structure.

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