As many of you may have heard, Shakopee has been chosen as one of the 50 best cities in the United States by Money Magazine. Shakopee was 30th out of 50 cities and I believe this shows the city is moving in the right direction.
We have made every effort to keep the community affordable while being an innovator. Also, we’ve attracted new high-paying jobs to the community including companies like Entrust, Emerson, Bayer and Cherne and assisted with expansions including Rahr and KEB America.
We have grown as a community with new homes, new neighbors, and new employers. As we’ve grown, we have kept what makes Shakopee special: preserving our unique heritage; revitalizing our historic downtown and improving our amenities like our large park system. We provide sewer service at an affordable cost to our community, have an award-winning police department and recently decided to provide manned fire service around the clock to ensure rapid response for fires and medical emergencies.
The City of Shakopee owns our local, Shakopee Public Utilities. They were split-off from the city by the Council in the 1950s — 70 years ago. It is served by a council appointed citizen commission/board. I was on that board for over 10 years. However, the relationship between the city and our utility has been strained for decades, is not integrated and is not working as One City One Team. I believe it’s time for a new model. We have tried for more than 20 years to work with SPU and to have them match our high level of customer service, innovation, efficiency and satisfaction. SPU is not alone, old school utilities from around the state are under pressure from their cities, North Branch, Princeton and Moorhead are just a few that have not innovated, adapted nor planned for the long term.
The city council has chosen to put on the ballot a measure to dissolve SPU; a choice for you to make. This would bring the utility into the city to be fully integrated and would bring strong, effective efficiencies that would save millions of dollars. Don’t we all want our city to be prudent, efficient and effective?
The SPU water team and electric team members would work under the Public Works Department. We have put out and received three proposals for operators of the SPU electric side for review and consideration. If we chose this route, under this scenario it would continue to be the same people, same trucks, but with different leadership and better coordination of the community’s future. Also in the end we could run the utility all in house and bring much needed innovation today to our utilities.
This ballot measure is not about a money grab nor about power nor is it political. The city has a AA+ bond rating because of good stewardship, and unlike other cities in the metro, we have been able to weather the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Because of our reserves, leadership and conservative budgeting, city staff has been here through the entire crisis, providing police, fire and inspection services. Shakopee city property taxes are some the lowest in the region and we deliver the best possible service at the best value. Much like the city, the utility has their own funds that are segregated and would remain that way. Our city financial analysis has shown that SPU could have generated over $4 million more dollars on investment income by using the city's model over the last 10 years. We are governed by similar rules on what we can invest in. We should demand better.
Better governance, accountability and oversight is the key. As we all have become aware, the utility manger with the approval of the commission over the last three-plus years has broken the state law restricting the utility manager’s salary. A fourth year was approved and on track to exceed the state mandated cap until a bright light was shed on this issue. This was backed up twice, once by the state auditor and its own legal independent investigation.
Several years ago, our School district had a major issue with the superintendent. Folks were outraged and the superintendent was relieved of his duties. The school board at that time was vilified by our community. However, at the utility, many folks, including current and past commissioners, have defended the manager and even his salary as deserving. But still no outrage about the utility nor its governance and even some still defend it today. Some folks say all is OK now. I thought a commissioner’s responsibility was to watch out for the ratepayers and protect the company/utility from wrong doing.
Of course, there is more to the story, which includes the payment in lieu of taxes that the utility board changed with no input, consultation or agreement with the city. Also, interesting about 18 months ago the city brought up that the developmental fees/rates are too high, again SPU and its board defended their position. Now SPU’s own consultant has made recommendation to reduce these fee/rates along with discussion about water quality. I agree, we do have low rates; however, we should demand better quality water for our community, our residents and for the future. Please don’t take water quality for granted.
This ballot measure is about governance and accountability. We should be looking at the long-term sustainability of our community. The surrounding communities draw from the same aquifer and all of them have treatment facilities — except Shakopee. Prior Lake has been a model with its partnership on water treatment with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. Most of the cities that surround us have their water utilities within the city; Chaska has both water and electric. Having water and sewer under one operation makes common sense by eliminating a large amount of operational overhead, duplicity and allowing for full integration with complete utility coordination. Our city staff has substantial experience in water delivery, treatment, and finances and would endeavor to ensure that we have safe, treated water in the long term, for the next 70-plus years.
While many in the news media and on social media have said Shakopee’s water is just fine, we are looking at the future. There are issues with certain chemicals in our water that have been recognized by all our surrounding cities. These chemicals impact the most vulnerable of residents — small children and the elderly. We owe it to every resident to look at the long-term water quality impacts and decide that having higher levels of these chemicals, while still meeting the current EPA standards, is not good enough anymore. This is about our future, either we do something about it now or it will be more expensive in the future. We are not a community of 12,000 but over 42,000 and soon to be 50,000. The residents deserve the best water possible at a reasonable cost.
We are looking to the future, the next 70-plus years. How do we protect and preserve our standing as one of the best communities to live in? Join in the discussion. Look at the facts. Look at the possible savings. Look at our future. Look at how well the city’s financial stability is. Think about how much money we could save. Look at how our water compares to the surrounding communities in cost and quality. We should demand better for the long term. Be a champion of our city because you live here. We should be One City One Team. Then after your review make your decision about the future of our community.