Opinion: Yay or nay, SPUC needs hard look in mirror

Submitted by Kayden Fox

This opinion piece was published in accordance with the Shakopean’s opinion submission guidelines. To read the guidelines or submit your own piece, click here.

As the youngest and most recent Shakopee Public Utilities Commission appointee, I’ve tried to do more listening and learning than talking. The rules governing utilities are phenomenally complex, not always self evident, and occasionally open to interpretation.

To that point, one of my first experiences as a commissioner was dealing with an investigation where it was revealed two managers were collecting wages in excess of a state law known about for at least two years. There was a legal waiver available that was not pursued. SPU legal representation was aware of the issue and didn’t raise it with the commission. SPU’s auditor was also aware of the issue, yet didn’t mention it while auditing finances until it was pointed out by the current commission; the auditor’s response was to add an addendum stating they weren’t responsible for finding legal issues. 

Wages paid in violation of state law were approved by a former commission in meetings closed in violation of open meeting laws; two of those members are still current commissioners, one of whom perpetually warns others (incorrectly) that they’re violating open meeting laws. 

All of this is unsurprising, considering the investigation also stated previous commissions and management lacked a strong understanding of both open meeting laws and data handling practices. This is largely due to SPU never having appointed a person to manage training on the subject — a shortfall the aforementioned commissioner attempted to blame on the city for not addressing. 

I find the recent hit piece from the unaffiliated Friends of SPUC page ironic, as the person accusing the mayor of being ‘in it for the money’ was one who retired shortly after it was discovered their 2020 salary violated state laws they’d known about and withheld from the commission since at least 2017.

This isn’t to suggest foul play — state statutes are verbose, elaborate, and not exactly light reading. The larger point of concern is the absolute lack in transparent communication about any of these issues between the entities involved over multiple years. The state auditor’s office was only contacted for clarification of the statute in question after the commission was made aware, despite management, lawyers, and auditors all being aware — years prior — of the violation, the waiver, and the dubious workaround the state auditor called “absurd and unreasonable.”

Over the years as these overpayments were made to management (while they also received  better terms on their healthcare coverage than other employees), several linemen left because there wasn’t money to pay them closer to market rates. SPU paid for their expensive training and then lost them because money was unlawfully paid to upper management instead.

Communication has been a consistent issue at SPU in my experience. It was several weeks after I was appointed before I spoke with anyone at SPU and that was only after tracking someone down myself days before my first meeting. Covid did make a mess of things, but there was absolutely nothing resembling an onboarding process and emails would regularly go unanswered unless a third party was copied. There have been times when we’ve been given 200 page agendas three days before a meeting. It’s possible to read, yes, but the only time to ask questions are two days on the weekend when no one is in the office and a few hectic business hours the day of the meeting. There have also been times when content was added mere hours before a meeting, making fact checking difficult if not impossible.

As a municipal entity, all wages, funds, emails, and meetings (with a few legal exceptions) are public information, yet there are years of documented evidence of SPU resisting and refusing to hand over public data to the city. When I ran for city council, the city administrator voluntarily provided  a comprehensive budget accounting for every dollar the city spends. Whether it’s park signage or snow pants for the plow drivers, it’s accounted for. Conversely, it was only this year that customer names and notes were added to the SPU warrant list instead of a sheet of account numbers and dollar values without context.  Part of the issue seems to be that SPU accounting relies on a series of spreadsheets and dated internal processes and systems.

SPU time cards are completed by hand on paper. Meter readers go door to door manually recording values. Our antiquated meters also cannot be disconnected remotely, requiring more time and labor to dispatch linemen for past due balances as low as $30. Despite the $100 reconnect fee, labor costs make the entire process a wasteful loss for all parties over trivial sums. 

Then there’s also the question of the millions of dollars that have been collected for water treatment that has been perpetually pushed back. A previous commision also handed off 100% of the control of SPU investments to the utilities manager with zero oversight. A cursory review of what information is available shows an estimated loss of $4 million over 10 years simply due to how inefficiently investments were handled.

On the subject of filtration, I have a private well I filter myself. Filters advertised for six months might last two and come out dark, rusty red. Even filtered, the hard water builds up in my water heater, fridge, dishwasher, and faucets, not just causing water spots but occasionally causing blockages as well. On the low side, I spend at least $1,000 a year on filtering, cleaning, service, parts, and labor just dealing with water quality issues. SPU services about 18,000 homes. That’s an extrapolated $18,000,000 a year the Shakopee area spends in mitigating water issues — assuming they have the funds or knowledge to do so. Economies of scale and industrial solutions offer a greater improvement to water quality at a lower cost. Centralized water treatment would extend service life of ratepayer appliances by addressing quality issues at the source instead of tens of thousands of end points.

This may read like I favor a vote to dissolve SPUC.

I don’t… but I’m honestly not against it, either.

The fact is there is a viable path forward either way the vote plays out, but both must come with an honest evaluation of how SPUC has handled itself to date. There is a lot of room for improvement, but some commissioners seem content to portray acknowledging our objective shortcomings as an act of war by the city to take over the commission. In my eyes, such childish and antagonistic antics are not how grown-ups do business. In fact, it’s the exact kind of behavior that should justify dissolving the commission. Instead of coming to the table to the benefit of residents, SPUC has threatened the city with litigation for asking for mundane fiscal information that is public domain. Self improvement starts by accepting your shortcomings, then working to fix them — not by blaming others.

The goal of SPUC is to ask hard questions to seek accountability, transparency, and quality service on behalf of the ratepayers. To that end, past commissions have rubber stamped unlawful wages in illegally closed sessions that legal counsel was seldom present at, if even aware of; accumulated tens of millions of dollars for projects that don’t happen; invested that money poorly losing millions; and resisted city efforts to collect data they’re obligated to report to the state, all while paying to train workers lost to low wages and bragging about water quality that “doesn’t violate state guidelines.” 

Doing the bare minimum should not be a point of pride, and I think Shakopee area residents deserve better than the bare minimum — especially when it comes to something so essential to basic quality of life like drinking water; doubly so when tens of millions of dollars have been appropriated to that end.

Should the citizens vote no, SPUC still has to make hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of dollars in long neglected updates to processes and systems. A great way to minimize that expense to ratepayers is to add SPU staff to modern solutions already set up by the city instead of spending tens of thousands on new servers and software. The jobs impacted are presently vacant and thus further save SPU money by efficiently using existing resources. However, that requires a commission more dedicated to transparency and good faith cooperation than playing victim of fabricated conspiracies and self-inflicted injuries. 

As one entity or as two, the mission statement of the city and SPU are one and the same: service to the people and increasing their quality of life. Autonomy may be a concern, but so is what SPUC has been doing with that autonomy to date. 

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