April 28, 2023 at 11:48 a.m.
North Branch utility looks to transform, start game plan
The structure of what had been an independent municipal-owned utility that provided power and water within the City of North Branch, is being reshaped over the coming months. The appointed utility commissioners have divested the municipal electric distribution assets, and are now starting to wrestle with what’s left of the utility.
Four of the five commissioners held a work session last week that lasted about an hour and, as expected, it generated more questions than answers. There’s to be another work session on May 3.
Minus the electric power distribution assets, which were acquired by the regional energy cooperative ECE, the group heard that the current form and function providing water and maintaining and periodically running the diesel powered generation systems, can’t last forever.
City Administrator Renae Fry explained the existing utility commission and city relationship is “temporary.”
She continued, saying this situation should be looked at as a ‘tool’ to get the utility commission to the point where they can call a referendum; which is how the public can eliminate the organization of the five commissioners.
The big question is if the commission itself gets abolished — or if the commission “transfers jurisdiction” to the city council. There are two different subdivisions in the 412.321 statute that fall under referendum guidelines. It was not discussed last week if commission activity will continue.
Fry suggested that well in advance of any ballot, the commissioners need to formally define utility personnel and administrative needs.
Commission member Patrick Meacham mentioned that he would like to see better language for how the commission interacts with current active water system personnel. The utility revenues through the commission cover the wages, but water staff are under the authority of Shawn Williams, city Public Works Director.
Fry noted the city and utility should also use this timeframe to layout a game plan for long range capital projects and build a repair/replacement schedule for big ticket items like the on-demand power generators that were not part of the ECE sale.
Commission Chair Nathan Keech recommended giving the legwork to the “transition subcommittee” which he said will meet on a closed-door unrecorded basis. This committee will develop recommendations the commission would review. The transition sub-committee has not been named yet, he added, but he promised the mission will be to foster an “on-going dialogue.”
Keech used a reference point of November 2024, for holding the referendum to abolish the commission. It was suggested just a possible target date, as a point from which the commission could “work backward’ for setting milestones. This was in response to newly appointed commission member Anthony Folstad asking what the “end goal” is.