David City officials are attempting to formulate a solution to improve the staffing situation at the local power plant in the very near future.
During a recently held Committee of the Whole meeting, conversation revolved around what a constructive solution might be now that former power plant assistant, Tom Dion, will be taking over as Butler County sheriff in January. During late summer, conversation – often heated – ramped up involving not only what the staffing situation will look like at the facility moving forward, but whether it was worth keeping the 1920s-built structure open at all.
With the city writing more than $1 million in checks for various facility upgrades and upkeep during the last eight years – and it only pumping power into the grid a handful of times each year – city leaders started discussing whether it made sense to keep it operational.
Ultimately, though, conversation has shifted away from closing the doors permanently at this point unless another major expense like replacing an engine arises, at which point the cost of operating the facility wouldn’t match the benefit of keeping it open.
Currently, the facility generates approximately $25,000 monthly for the city through a wholesale purchase agreement with the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD). The approximately $300,000 in city revenues – and having no outstanding facility debt -- makes it worth keeping the plant open now, but one colossal expense would likely shut its doors for good, Mayor Alan Zavodny has said on several occasions.
The agreement states the city must be able to have the plant up and running on two hours’ notice to pump power into the city grid if required by NPPD. The municipality’s power is purchased through NPPD and then distributed through the city’s lines, which in-turn is purchased through the city by residents, Councilman Skip Trowbridge said during a previous interview with The Banner-Press.
So with talk of shutting power plant doors at least temporarily halted, the conversation has shifted to finding help for Power Plant Superintendent Eric Betzen, because should Betzen be unable to get the plant running during an emergency situation or when NPPD calls, the situation would inevitably be very problematic.
Discussion at the meeting regarding a staffing solution revolved around three possible solutions. First, David City could enter an interlocal agreement with Rising City which has an employee capable – with some refreshing and training – of manning the facility. Other options include training a Butler County Health Care employee or cross-training a department of utility employee.
The hospital has a vested interest in the plant remaining operational because it has the capability to provide power to the facility during an emergency situation.
“They would provide some employees to learn it and in an emergency, they would be able to help us,” Zavodny said. “Because it’s in their best interest for it to stay open, from the hospital’s standpoint.”
While the interlocal agreement with Rising City is an option, the difficulty is that in an emergency situation the person with the capability of running David City’s facility may be tied up and unable to make it to the plant on short notice.
Cross training an electrical worker through the Department of Utilities is certainly an option, however, a few concerns were raised. Trowbridge said that in all likelihood the department’s younger staff may move on to higher-paying jobs in the not-so-far future, and it also might not be the best idea to cross-train an older employee with one foot already halfway out the door.
“(Two DU employees) are near the end of their working career, and we have three young ones in,” Trowbridge said. “And with the pay in that particular industry, we are not going to have them for long periods of time … So I don’t think that’s a good pool to work from. They do have the knowledge and desire, but if they are going to be moving around it doesn’t help us a bit.”
The councilman added that training hospital staff would be his No. 1 option at this time, adding the importance of adding a second employee not only out of necessity but also because the most recently passed budget allocates funding for two power plant employees.
“That would be my first option,” Trowbridge said of training hospital staff. “Because I believe those folks are well compensated and that (their current job) is likely a life-long position.”
Betzen, present in the meeting, didn’t have many comments when asked if he had anything he’d like to add. He did say, however, that pay is certainly a factor in terms of getting someone to tackle that power plant job.
“We need stability (at the facility),” Zavodny said. “… We’ve let it go way too long and it’s gotten to this point.”
Betzen added: “You’re right, but if you are going to get somebody to stay, you are going to have to pay a little more. And this seems to be the same old song.”
With options on the table, it’s time to buckle down and actually do something, Trowbridge added.
“We need to follow the three avenues that we have and set a timeline, and maybe by the first of the year we can come up with a plan.”
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at email@example.com.