WILLMAR — With only a week remaining before the district heat program in Willmar is decommissioned, there are still more than 60 Willmar Municipal Utilities customers who have not completed the process of installing a new heating system for their properties.

"A number of them are working on conversion," said John Harren, Willmar Municipal Utilities general manager.

Harren at Monday's meeting gave the Municipal Utilities Commission a final update on the decommission process.

"We are down to the end here," said Justin Mattern, commission president.

There are still four customers who rely on the district heat system for hot water, one of which is Willmar Municipal Utilities, Harren said. All will no longer get hot water through the district heat system starting June 30.

Harren said staff will begin removing utilities' equipment, most likely starting in July, from the homes of those customers who have not yet transferred over to a new heating system as another reminder for those customers they need to get a system installed by fall. Eventually, all Willmar Municipal Utilities district heating equipment will be removed.

Willmar Municipal Utilities decided three years ago to end the district heat system to save money. For years the number of customers was dropping as more and more installed cheaper heating alternatives. To keep the system running, Willmar Municipal Utilities would have needed to make significant and expensive upgrades to the power plant, which would have at least doubled the heating rates.

In November the decision was made to officially close down the power plant as well. The plant hasn't been used for electricity production for at least two years, since Willmar Municipal Utilities buys the power it needs on the open market, which is considerably cheaper.

"It has been one heck of a journey," said Mattern. "It will be good have it behind us."

Employee numbers

Willmar Municipal Utilities has seen a reduction in the number of full-time staff it employs. In 2012, Willmar Municipal Utilities had 60 full-time positions. By Aug. 1 there will be 32. This is partly caused by the closure of the power plant and district heat, but not completely.

"We have been downsizing over the years," said Janell Johnson, compliance/human resources manager. "Each department has been impacted."

Harren said technology advances and efficiencies have helped trim staff numbers. Whenever an individual would resign, the position would be reviewed to see if it was necessary for it to be filled.

"Each department is working with less staff today," Harren said. "Each department is functioning differently."

The number of employees should hold steady going forward.

"We are about as lean as we can get here," Harren said. "We have a good, solid staff."