City may merge water, sewer utilitiesMayor Dean Knudson has completed a review of Hudson’s water and sewer utilities. Now it’s up to the City Council to decide if it wants to combine the two utilities under one director and oversight body.
By: Randy Hanson, Hudson Star-Observer
Mayor Dean Knudson has completed a review of Hudson’s water and sewer utilities. Now it’s up to the City Council to decide if it wants to combine the two utilities under one director and oversight body.
The mayor identified four ways of organizing the utilities in a report to the council’s Finance Committee on Feb. 18.
One is to maintain the current organizational structure with two separate utilities.
The reorganization possibilities identified by Knudson included:
“My investigation leads me to the conclusion that the current structure is satisfactory,” Knudson said in a written report on his findings.
But he added, “The only alternative likely to yield long-term benefits outweighing the disadvantages might be” combining the water and sewer utilities under City Council control.
“Adoption of this alternative would entail significant short-term disruptions, including abolishment of the PUC (Public Utility Commission) and a blending of the two departments,” Knudson wrote. “Staff resistance to change could be expected to be significant.”
He said the City Council could choose to file the report with no further action.
“If additional study is desired, my recommendation would be to seek an independent review by a consultant with expertise in utility management,” he wrote.
Council action to date
The City Council directed the review of the utilities’ organizational structures following the sudden death of Water Utility Director Dennis Christophersen on Dec. 13, 2008.
Under a city hiring freeze now in place, the council is required to review any position that comes open to determine if it needs to be refilled.
In a discussion about the water utility director’s job description at a Jan. 5 Finance Committee meeting, City Attorney Catherine Munkittrick explained that Hudson Public Utility Commission is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the water utility.
Munkittrick said the City Council could give recommendations regarding the job description and filling the director’s position, but the decision-making authority lay with the Public Utility Commission.
The City Council could abolish the commission, however, and take back supervision of the water utility and its director, Munkittrick advised.
Later that evening, the council approved a set of recommendations concerning the director’s position that were forwarded to the Public Utility Commission.
In addition, the council voted 5-1 to advise the commission that it was considering dissolving it and combining the water utility with another city department.
The implication was that having one director for both the water and sewer utilities, as well as cross-trained workers, could save money.
Unlike the water utility, the city’s wastewater department is supervised by the City Council. Wastewater Director Jim Schreiber reports to the Public Works Committee.
Tim Caruso, who stepped down as president of the Public Utility Commission at the end of January, on Feb. 18 advised the council’s Finance Committee against reorganizing the utilities.
Caruso said most municipalities don’t combine their water and sewer utilities because they are so different.
He said the Hudson Public Utility Commission had operated well during the 20 years that he served on it – the past 10 years as the president.
The decision 14 years ago to require land developers to pay water impact fees has kept Hudson’s water rates low and the utility in good financial shape, Caruso said.
He said the utility also had benefitted from Christophersen’s leadership and the leasing of space on water towers for cellular phone antennas.
The non-partisan nature of the Public Utility Commission keeps politics out of its decision-making, Caruso said.
Kevin Vance was appointed to replace Caruso on the commission. Its other members are new president David Prissel, James Pribil, Tom Irwin and Dave Holt.
The water utility has gone without a director since Christophersen’s death.
Chief Operator Jim Frye and Administrative Assistant Jace Holzemer have been sharing the director’s duties in the interim.
The Public Utility Commission’s deadline for applications to replace Christophersen was Feb. 27. Frye is among the candidates for the job.
The water utility also has six other workers, called operators, and seasonal maintenance employees.
Water rate increases must be approved by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.
The wastewater department has four operators who work under Director Schreiber’s supervision.
A combined utility, as envisioned by Knudson, would have one director, one administrative assistant and two chief operators (one for the water system and one for the sewer system).
Three of the combined utility’s nine operators would be cross-trained to work on either the water system or the sewer system.
Four operators would work exclusively with the water system, and two would work exclusively with the sewer system.