Truman readying for vote on fate of PUC

TRUMAN — The Truman City Council this week discussed what will happen if the Public Utilities Commission is abolished.

The council decided in late May to put the fate of the PUC in the hands of voters. The referendum will take place Aug. 13.

If the PUC is abolished, the council will assume its responsibilities. The PUC is the governing body that regulates rates and services of local utilities. Right now, three people — Ron Kelley, Darla Wiederhoeft and Kathy Hendricksen — comprise the PUC. There are five members of the City Council.

Mayor Lynn Brownlee discussed some pros of disbanding the PUC, saying there will be more elected officials making decisions if the council assumes responsibility.

“There would possibly be more transparency,” she said. “Not that the PUC hasn’t been transparent, but I think people would maybe pay more attention to what’s going on in the city.”

Brownlee said there might also be a monetary savings from sharing equipment, billing and staff.

One resident asked if the council has contacted any other cities of similar size to see if they have sold their public utilities to see if it worked out for them.

“If you know of any, I will certainly contact them, but I’m not aware of any,” said city administrator Bethanie Ekstrom.

Officials suggest more frequent meetings may be a benefit, because council members would discuss public utilities issues during regular council meetings. Right now, the council meets twice per month, but council members also have been sitting in on PUC meetings.

“One con is that it’s more of a time commitment as far as City Council is concerned,” Brownlee said.

She mentioned an update from engineering firm Bolton & Menk that was presented this week regarding needed but expensive maintenance on the city’s water system.

“If the city did take over the PUC, who would pay for the water repairs?” one resident asked.

Officials say the repairs will cost the same, regardless of who is in charge of Truman Public Utilities.

“With water and sewer, we need to make immediate repairs. And maintain what we have over the course of the years. And bring it into the black,” Brownlee noted.

She said water rates have gone up little in the last 10 years, so they would need to rise.

“There should be some kind of adjustment,” said council member Brandon Mosloski. “The electric has been overpaying for many years. They’ve been subsidizing the water and sewer for a lot of years so with a rate study and a rate change, we should level that out a little better.”

“I think that the City Council and PUC should be working together, rather than getting rid of the PUC,” said a resident.

Mosloski said it is the hope of the council that if the PUC is abolished, its current members would still work together with the council to help get everything figured out.

As a member of both the PUC and council, Hendricksen expressed disappointment, saying the PUC would have been glad to work with the council a long time ago, before the situation came to its present state.

Councilman Jake Ebert said Hendricksen was once the PUC liaison and should have let the council know two years ago about all the financial issues the PUC is dealing with.

In 2016, a consultant for Truman Public Utilities made a presentation to the council on repairs needed in the city. The rates were increased at that time and citizens were told that the money would be used for repairs. However, the repairs were never done.

“It isn’t all the PUC’s fault or the liaison’s,” Hendricksen said. “I think there’s been a wedge driven between the city and the PUC and I’m not sure if this election is going to help it. We have to work together, which we haven’t done.”

“It goes both ways, Kathy,” Mosloski responded.

Ekstrom pointed out that since the council was made aware of issues with the PUC, council members have been attending PUC meetings.

Hendricksen expressed how difficult planning for repairs has been.

“You can’t plan for this. There’s unexpected expenses,” she said.

Ebert said that is not what is upsetting.

“There was a 10-year plan for like $1.2 million,” he noted. “$70,000 of one year went to wages. Take that times ten and that’s $700,000 that was never in this $1.2 million plan.”

“I’m not trying to attack anyone but I want people to know how we got here and why we started digging,” Mosloski said. “People thought their rate increases four years ago was to fix this and a lot of it didn’t go to that.”

A member of the public asked if the city would have to dip into a gift of farmland the city was given last year. The city sold the land for $1.4 million. Brownlee said the city was not given the gift for that purpose.

“In my mind, the ultimate goal would be for all of us to come together and keep our own public utilities,” Ebert said. “But we need to come up with a plan to do it together and it doesn’t drive everybody out of town because it costs so much money. That’s why we’re sitting here tonight. I know there’s a lot of upset people, but nobody has the true answer. If we work together we can find the best answer.”

“Right now we have a lot of pros, and not so many cons. We’re asking the public to bring out some more comments if you have them,” Brownlee said.

The special election will take place Aug. 13. Absentee ballots are available at City Hall.