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September 22, 2021

7/30/2021 11:17:00 AM
North Branch city absorbs utility water employees; utility still pays hourly wages

Back up to a full five members the North Branch Water and Light Commission unanimously cemented the process of moving two former utility water operators with Operating Engineers Local into city public works staff.  They are now city employees.  

Wages were unchanged and pension is unaffected. Built-up medical leave benefits calculated to “clean up the books’ to be deposited into staff accounts, who qualify,  came to about $26,000 in total. The Water & Light Electrical side remains untouched. The utility commission had new appointees Phil Carlson and Sean Peterson sworn-in at the start of the meeting July 21.

Utility assets such as buildings and equipment stay under the utility’s control for now.  North Branch City Administrator Renae Fry told the commission any action on assets involves the  city council.

North Branch will send a bill to the utility for the two transitioned workers’ hours until dissolution of the utility has been completed.

The water side of the city public works  expands to six employees who are credentialed  to run water operations, (previously city staff ran wastewater facilities, the utility was responsible for municipal water systems.)  

Commission Chair Nathan Keech noted the city being able to absorb these water operators is one of “a number of positive things” arising from the city utility takeover.

Finding legal representation didn’t prove to be as simple, though.  No law firms showed any interest in answering the utility’s Request for Proposals.  

Water and Light General Manager Scott Hautala said he sought out the city administrator’s advice when no RFPs arrived, and they went to Flaherty & Hood, the city’s attorney, to see if services could be provided through them.  Hautala said in the event of a conflict of interest the firm will advise on alternative legal counsel.  Conflicts could easily be encountered as there needs to be a services agreement and other contracts drafted between the city and the utility in coming months.

Based on past legal billings, Flaherty & Hood is budgeted through end of the year at an expense of $18,000.

Nearby energy provider East Central Electric has been in talks with North Branch Water & Light on a guaranteed level of “mutual aid” for when remaining utility staff can’t respond to an emergency like an outage.  Line crew members would come from ECE.  The rate of pay and terms of call-out, etc. need to be developed, but the commissioners were supportive of working with ECE.

Newly seated Commissioner Sean Peterson just wanted to avoid lengthy delays in response, and he asked if any other contractor offering lineman skills was approached.  Hautala said one wasn’t interested and one did not respond to his outreach. He added that he prefers firming up in-roads with ECE as an adjacent energy system,  and that the two have a good relationship.

In a water/drought update: Hautala said the state has advised all water providers to reduce consumption.  Water and Light has been recommended to go to 750,000 gallons in daily use.  Lately the utility has produced closer to one million.  (See sidebar on new North Branch use restrictions.)

In August the commissioners will review the data and see if additional measures are warranted.  Hautala said this is not the result of any local water quantity issue but in imes of severe drought state agencies like DNR enact conditions to conserve groundwater statewide. (Story on state alert in Press July 22.)

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