February 22, 2023 at 3:22 p.m.
NB Water & Light commission tackles multiple projects, transitions
Water & Light utility commission positions expired as of December 2022. City officials’ inactions avoided filling the utility seats, until newly-elected council members, in organizing for the new year 2023, took advantage of the technical vacancies and opted to prohibit a city council member for any post on Water & Light. (Council member Schaps of course, was a no vote.)
Utility Chair Nathan Keech commented last week that Council member Schaps was in the room “representing himself.” In the meantime, Keech added, the commission would “navigate the situation as best it can” (presumably until a new person is appointed to fill Schaps’ seat.)
The incumbent utility commissioners, with the exception Patrick Meacham, were the only ones applying to be appointed. The city council will be interviewing and making appointments later. Mid-March is the goal to have the water and light commission terms back on track.
The work of the commission continues, however.
Electric distribution assets may have been sold (story Press Feb 16) but there are the generation and the water system deferred projects remaining.
Many projects were given the green light to either proceed to bid, or happen.
There will be a fuel tank monitor replacing the failed device at the diesel powered electric generator house. The diesel tank is 20,000 gallons and the commissioners were advised that there are no working gauges. Nobody wants to fill the tank and risk an overflow. The generators are part of the midwest power grid and run on-demand and they are tested regularly, so they need fuel.
Zahl Petroleum got this content meter project.
Also, the “ZTR” or dashboard for the remote readouts of multiple sets of operations data, recently failed. This too will be redone, along with SCADA systems in the works. There also is a cost for integrating these, which went to Erickson Electric and Automatic Systems Company.
The commission also okayed WSB to get bids ready, so contractors can begin to be considered for underground water main replacement in the Highway 95 corridor. North Branch is addressing troublesome sections between Second and Twelfth Ave. and between Ninth and Tenth.
Water Operations Manager Shawn Williams said the estimate for this water main work was $1.9 million— but these new engineering specs and calculations will firm that up.
WSB will also develop a timeline for the project.
WSB also will get going on the long-discussed water tower rehab request-for- proposals (RFP).
The tower west of #30 (north of downtown) is next due for work. Extent of the project is more or less equal to what was done to the tower by the outlet mall, according to Williams.
In addition, North Branch has six wells and the one at the base of the outlet mall tower, needs attention immediately. Traut Well was awarded the project to replace rotting cast iron at well #3, which has caused recent loss of pressure.
James Baxter asked his fellow Water & Light commissioners if they too have wondered why the utility is paying for everything; but the city and utility own some of assets jointly. (ie: the diesel generators). Baxter pointed out the city borrowed millions for utility projects decades ago, but the utility paid the city to cover the bond debt, because the utility couldn’t borrow on its own. With the sale of electric assets to East Central Energy those sale revenues went to pay off $4 million approximately in old debt. More proceeds are being held by a third party for a 2024 call date on additional bonds.
The financial reports now show the city gets the leftover sale assets.
City Administrator Renae Fry responded now that the electric distribution division is gone— the utility no longer has to hold approximately $4.7 million in restricted system-dedicated debt service and funding, plus the utility has investment income. “It makes sense you pay,” she concluded.
In other business the commission okayed about $16,000 owed to ECE to cover employee-related earned benefits and time off for one electric employee who has opted to become an ECE staff member.
The other former Water & Light electric employee chose to remain working in the city public works department.
As for water operations, the switch out of meters is in final phases with automatic reading equipment next. The utility commissioners approved a one time $83,000 for the AMI water tower-mounted reader. Digital cloud storage and software on-going expenses are added as well— but staff assure these costs are far less than paying a staff member to drive around the city with a handheld data reader. The data is also available in real time and useful for locating “high use” sites where there may be a leak or malfunction.
Electric meters are also being replaced.
Staff said they’ll work with ECE so meters aren’t being changed over in the midst of billing.
One possible issue is due to customers who rely on government programs that subsidize energy payments to companies on behalf of program participants. The payments are delayed and some extra work will be needed to make sure Water & Light gets its remittances owed and not ECE.