City Council And Water Board Hold Shared Services Meeting

Oskaloosa City Hall

Oskaloosa City Hall

By Eduardo Zamarripa, CRI Weekly News

Oskaloosa, Iowa – On Monday night, the Oskaloosa City Council and the Water Utility Board of Trustees held a meeting to discuss how both entities can share services to reduce costs. The board oversees the Oskaloosa Water Department (OWD).

The conversation was based off a shared services study conducted by the PFM Group back in April. That study suggested nine recommendations. The board and the council discussed eight of them; privatizing the water department was the only recommendation that was vetoed in April.

Here are the eight recommendations that were discussed on Monday night (savings are in parenthesis):

  • Enhancing communication between the City and the OWD
  • Formalize and standardize joint budgeting, reporting and planning efforts
  • Enhance the convenience of paying water bills and other city fees and permits
  • Explore joint purchasing opportunities
  • Explore opportunities for sharing software licensing, servers and other technology (Using the City’s software saves $12,00 for the OWD.)
  • Explore opportunities for equipment sharing and joint contracting ventures (Not duplicating equipment purchases collectively saves $75,000 over the next five years for both entities.)
  • Look for opportunities to centralize back office functions (Eliminating the OWD’s office manager and utility clerk saves $150,000 for the OWD.)
  • Look for opportunities to cross-train water and wastewater operator (Eliminating the City’s waste water operator saves $62,000 for the City, eliminating the OWD’s plant operator saves $80,000 for the OWD.)

By approving all of the eight recommendations, the City saves about $62,000 a year and the OWD saves about $242,000 a year. In addition to those savings, the City and the OWD would collectively save $75,000 over the next five years by eliminating duplicated equipment purchases. However, since that shared services meeting back in April, there has not been a lot of work done towards achieving these recommendations. At least that’s what the City Council believes, which is why the council sent a letter to the board asking to meet quarterly to discuss how to share services.

Discussing centralizing back office functions generated a lot of discussion. The study suggests that the OWD should gradually phase out its office staff through attrition (eliminating the office manager, which costs the OWD $80,000 a year in salary and benefits, and eliminating the utility billing clerk, which costs the OWD $70,000 in salary and benefits), and then centralize office functions with the City Clerk in order to save money. In other words, the OWD would lose employees and the City Clerk would take on those responsibilities. Oskaloosa Water Department General Manager Chad Coon spoke about this recommendation.

“You go through the recommendations and it talks about eliminating my staff. Specifically, calls out my office manager and my utility billing clerk for elimination. And I have awesome employees, but to sit here and tell you that they aren’t scared to death that they’re losing their jobs because of this study, I’d be lying to you,” Coon says. “And it’s been a very stressful year because of that. And every time we think that it’s started to, kind of, smooth out, and we can move forward, there’s a hiccup somewhere and all of this is thrown in our face again.”

Councilman Tom Walling then responded to Coon by clarifying that the study asks to eliminate staff by “attrition.”

“We don’t want to make it personal, I realize it has been, but that’s why I said, again, it says ‘attrition’ in that letter three times and that’s where we are all at,” Walling said. “You got to look at the real big picture here and think of it as one city.”

Walling says that both the City and the OWD are running efficiently, but that there’s always going to be room for improvement. Walling then added that it comes down to Coon and City Manager Michael Schrock getting together and figuring out these issues.

“Here’s my concern, there’s a comment made that things went away, things were getting smooth for a few months. Nothing was being implemented. Things are smooth until we have this meeting come up again and ask, ‘well, where are these items?’ Which is your responsibility as a council, you appoint these people (the Water Utility Board of Trustees). And so, I guess that’s where I get concerned. I’m happy to sit in a room and talk about what can be done, but if I’m going to be told, these are the reasons why we can’t do it, it’s very difficult,” Schrock says. “I understand, I can respect that there’s concern for people’s positions, but this is beyond that.”

Water Utility Board of Trustees Chairperson Pete Settimi responded to Schrock.

“From my perspective, there’s definitely opportunities for us to do a lot of the things in here, and we’re 100 percent committed to doing whatever we can do to provide safe-drinking water and fire protection for the city at the lowest possible cost, and at the same time, being a good partner with the city and making sure that we can save money together,” Settimi said.

The board and the council also discussed saving money by sharing annual software licensing fees. The City and the OWD use the same software and both pay an annual fee. However, the City has version 10.0 and the OWD has version 8.0. City Clerk Amy Miller says the OWD can streamline into using the City’s software without changing how it operates. The OWD approximately pays $12,000 annually for the financial system and utility handheld meter reader interfacing.

The council also asked the board to turn in the OWD’s budget earlier with a more detailed financial report. This is something that the OWD has already been working on to collaborate with the City.

Coon also discussed adding 24-hour drop boxes in different locations. Coon says that adding a website to pay bills online costs approximately $2,400. These are all suggestions that came within the study and that the OWD is evaluating.

In addition to that, the board and the council discussed how the entities can share and purchase equipment, and how they can cross-train to save money.

No actions were made throughout the meeting, but a list of action items were created to discuss when both entities plan meet again on Feb. 10 at 6:30 p.m. in their next quarterly meeting.

To read the full study conducted by the PFM Group, click here.

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