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Willmar, Minn., Utilities linemen working on Sandy relief to return home

A lineman works in howling winds Nov. 7 while attempting to restore power to New York City's surrounding area. Two linemen from Willmar have been working on Long Island in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. AP Photo/Mel Evans

WILLMAR -- Two Willmar Municipal Utilities linemen could be home Friday after working the past week and a half on Superstorm Sandy relief.

Casey Jenny and Dick Thynes voluntarily joined thousands of linemen and tree trimmers from municipal utilities and electric cooperatives from Minnesota, other states and Canada in repairing power lines, poles and other electrical infrastructure.

Thousands of East Coast residents and businesses lost power due to high wind and water damage caused by the hurricane Oct. 29.

Jenny and Thynes left Willmar in a bucket truck Nov. 2 and drove in a caravan with other Minnesotans from Rochester to Long Island where they have worked 16-hour days every day to restore power to customers of Long Island Power Authority.

Willmar Utilities General Manager Wesley Hompe updated the utilities commission Tuesday on Jenny and Thynes.

Hompe said the two had to sleep in the truck some nights because there was no place to stay. When they did find a place, a nor'easter storm came through and knocked out power.

"They've been sleeping on cots or in the truck and I think they'll really be happy to find a bed,'' said Hompe.

He said Long Island residents appreciate what the out-of-town linemen are doing, as long as the locals understand that they don't work for the Long Island Power Authority, which is being criticized for not restoring power quickly enough.

"But there's been a lot of people out there that are giving these guys a pat on the back for doing a really good job,'' said Hompe.

Commission President Dave Baker praised their efforts.

"I think we're super proud of these two guys for taking time away from their families to do this and we sure want to recognize them when come back here in town and we'll have that at a future meeting,'' Baker said.

In other business Tuesday, the commission approved an intergovernmental transfer payment agreement with the city for 2013 and 2014.

Hompe said part of the utility's purpose is to provide financial stability and payment in lieu of taxes to the city. The present three-year agreement expires at the end of 2012.

Hompe said the new agreement negotiated for 2013 and 2014 will give the utility's new finance director Tim Hunstad time to understand how it works and to look at possible future changes.

Baker was also involved in the negotiation, along with City Administrator Charlene Stevens and City Council member Denis Anderson, chairman of the City Council's Finance Committee.

"I think we're all in agreement that this should work for us in the next couple of years,'' Hompe said.

Baker said payments of about $1.8 million to $1.9 million a year are made from retained earnings, which remain after all bills are paid. Baker said it's a good agreement.

"Obviously it's a terrific benefit for all of us that live in the city to keep our taxes as low as we can,'' he said. "With good people running the utility like we have here, we're able to show some good retained earnings that provide that return.''

He said the agreement protects the utility during tough times. He said if cash is not in the bank, the utility will not pay that bill.

"It's one of those outs that we do have, that we have to maintain certain levels of cash,'' he said.

The utility's 2013 payment of $1,955,400 will represent 12.9 percent of the city's $15,090,918 proposed general fund revenues next year.

The payment is based on a percentage of the utility's net assets. The new agreement increases the percentage from 4.8 percent to 4.9 percent.

Commissioner Matt Schrupp asked why the percentage was increased. He asked if the city requested a higher amount.

Baker said the utility was looking at capping the percentage at some point, possibly when the amount hits $2 million. Baker said Anderson brought the 4.9 percentage to the table.

"I think Mr. Anderson wanted to bring something back to the council to say they were working on extending a little extra for us and I think that's the only reason why we felt like if there is an opportunity to discuss capping in the future, this might be a nice step,'' Baker explained.

Schrupp said he did not oppose the increase, but said the utility should not let it go higher. "I don't want it to creep higher than where it's at,'' he said.

Baker said he thought the utility should look at a cap in the near future. He said the utility will need to focus on significant investments in the power plant and water department, among other areas.

Commissioner Dan Holtz agreed with Schrupp. Also, Holtz asked commissioners to remember that not only is the percentage increased but the payment will increase when the net assets increase.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150