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Hydro dam responsibilities named for city

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news Brainerd, 56401
Brainerd MN 506 James St. / PO Box 974 56401

A few responsibilities the city will undertake with the possible ownership of the hydro dam were spelled out Tuesday.

Bill Forsmark, director of business development and vice president at Barr Engineering, told the Brainerd Public Utilities (BPU) Commission about some key duties at its meeting Tuesday.

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“It’s my responsibility to teach, inform you folks so you become independent in owning and operating the dam,” he said.

Forsmark added that the city has a lot of resources to turn to, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Wausau officials, Barr Engineering, and other state municipalities that own dams.

The Brainerd City Council recently agreed on a lowered price of $2.6 million for the hydro dam, which is a drop from the original $4.115 million. Voting against the agreed price was city council member Mary Koep.

Here are the responsibilities Forsmark said the city will be tasked with in buying the dam:

• Safety elements: The city will need to have an “owners dam safety program.”

City leaders need to be sure that if an employees sees a safety issue, they know who to bring it to and will do so without worry over fiscal responsibility or other concerns.

Dam safety can be added to the BPU safety committee, said Scott Magnuson, BPU superintendent.

• Security needs to be a No. 1 concern, especially with any potential acts of terrorism or vandalism.

• Training in unique operations: Some operational issues might be similar to existing utilities that BPU operates but other issues are unique to a dam. Staff needs to be trained properly.

• Public safety: The public will want as much access as possible, but safety and security need to be a concern.

The purchasing process for the hydro dam is still moving forward, said Todd Wicklund, BPU finance director. The title work is getting close to being completed.

Purchasing the dam is still important, he said, as the city aims to manage its costs of buying power.

Over the last 11 years, the average annual adjustment was a 6.7 percent increase in power costs in buying from Minnesota Power, Wicklund said.

“The rates can’t keep up to that rate of growth,” he said. “Using a hydro facility, it’s a hedging mechanism to reduce rate adjustments.”

Wicklund added that it makes sense for the city to look into options like the hydro dam.

“It makes sense when we have adjustments like this,” he said.

Still, there are questions in the purchase, which the public has yet to weigh in on officially through a public hearing.

During open forum, Koep presented the commission with three pages of questions she wants answered about the hydro dam.

Koep said she didn’t expect answers right away, but would like a response in a couple of weeks.

The list included questions such as:

What in the engineer’s reports do you believe are addressed in homeland security rules? What funds will be used to pay for the engineer’s reports? Will those funds be contained in the accounting of funds for the dam? How will the costs of the dam be kept separate from other public utility costs? Has a business plan been developed for operating and maintaining the dam?

“Transparency had been a stranger in this project and now the public is being fed only what you want them to know,” Koep said. “The questions I ask are relevant to the public and assessment of this project.”

Koep added that she will ask the questions and try to “separate the hype from the truth.”

There have been five engineer reports done on the hydro dam since the process started last summer, Wicklund said.

Each has been paid for by BPU and is listed in the bills approved at each meeting, he said.

In other public utility commission news:

Brainerd resident Jeff Czeczok disputed the commission’s motion to move into closed session for BPU employee evaluations. Czeczok argued that since the group didn’t list off the specific statute number for the reason behind the closed session, the group could not close the meeting.

That resulted in a heated exchange between Czeczok and commission chair Don Samuelson, who said he was still closing the meeting because he could quote what the statute said, allowing for the closure, just not the statute number.

Samuelson added that Czeczok could file a complaint.

When Czeczok still refused to leave, Samuelson said he would just adjourn the meeting.

That’s when commission member Lucy Nesheim motioned the group take a recess, call the Brainerd city administrator for the exact statute number, and then go into closed session to complete the evaluations.

“Now you guys are doing it right,” Czeczok said as he left.

JESSICA LARSEN may be reached at jessica.larsen@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5859. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/brainerdnews.

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