Shakopee voters will decide the future of Shakopee Public Utilities on the Nov. 3 ballot when they answer the question: “Shall the Shakopee Public Utilities Commission be abolished?”
The Shakopee City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday night in favor of including the question on the ballot. Councilor Matt Lehman was the lone dissenter.
“I served on that commission for a long time,” Mayor Bill Mars said at Tuesday night’s meeting. “To come to this point in time is not a proud moment.”
However, Mars said, this is an opportunity for Shakopee voters to make the choice for themselves, especially in light of recent findings that Utilities Manager John Crooks has been violating the state-mandated local government salary cap since 2017.
SPUC met in closed session last week for more than two hours to discuss the findings from a third-party investigative report. The commissioners subsequently voted in public session to have SPUC legal counsel negotiate a repayment plan for Crooks to reimburse the salary he was paid over the legal limit.
The salary cap is set by the Minnesota Legislature to be equal to 110 percent of the governor’s salary. For the year 2020, the cap is $178,782. Public records show Crooks’ 2020 salary is at least $200,000.
“I dont feel it’s the issue of the delivery of the commodity,” Mars specified. “The delivery of water and delivery of electrical service to our community is very good. It’s those internal components that concern me.”
Assistant City Administrator Nate Burkett told the city council one of city staff’s biggest concerns is water quality.
“The water quality in Shakopee is, in fact, objectively lower than in our surrounding communities and as compared to most of the communities throughout the metro area,” Burkett said, referring to a comparison from a 2017 water quality report.
Shakopee does not have a water treatment plant. Instead, water from different wells is blended together to reduce contamination before being delivered to rate payers.
Councilor Jody Brennan, who is also a recently appointed member of SPUC, said she has been frustrated by the lack of answers to her questions as a new commissioner.
“Personally in being on as a commissioner, I can never get answers. I can never get anything put on the agenda. There’s never been a clear opening on getting information,” Brennan said. “It’s been a frustration.”
“This is an opportunity for the rate payers of Shakopee to see a better system being put into place,” she said. “The utility company is pretty antiquated in how they’re doing things.”
Councilor Jay Whiting, who initially made the request from city staff for information on a vote to abolish SPUC, said he has concerns about SPUC’s transparency, water quality, and the entity’s historically tumultuous relationship with the city.
“Red flags have been going up for years and we’ve been kind of dancing around them,” Whiting said. “Give it to the voters and let them decide.”
What happens if SPUC is abolished?
In Burkett’s presentation to the council, he answered some of the swirling questions about what would happen if voters do vote to abolish SPUC.
Burkett said water and electric service would continue without interruption, and the city council would assume authority over the utilities. The city does not anticipate any reductions to existing utilities staff, but the city would want to align central services like human resources and finance departments.
“Those are things I can reasonably say will happen, but I know there have been lots of other questions,” Burkett said.
Though not all questions have answers right now, Burkett said the city will continue to provide facts and research leading up to the Nov. 3 election.
“It’s unfortunate we can’t answer every single question right now,” he said. “We will continue to provide factual information to the public so they can make an informed decision. We want to be 100% ethical, 100% factual, and 100% transparent.”