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Utilities officials still want feedback on new building [Austin Daily Herald, Minn. :: ]
[March 20, 2014]

Utilities officials still want feedback on new building [Austin Daily Herald, Minn. :: ]

(Austin Daily Herald (MN) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 20--More feedback, better power Austin Utilities officials are promising to continue taking feedback and resident concerns into account a day after the Austin Utilities Board of Directors voted to hire an architect to design a $15-20 million central administration facility.

Utilities officials said during a press conference Tuesday they hope residents continue to give feedback on the project as it progresses.rateincreases Utilities officials will set aside $900,000 for the design phase of the project. Austin Utilities will ask an architect to create two building designs -- one with operations and customers service offices, and one with just operations -- to be built at Austin Utilities' 23-acre Energy Park property near Todd Park.

"We see a clear need to move our facilities to a new and more efficient space," Board President Geoff Baker said. "The staff has demonstrated that and our employees have demonstrated that very clearly to us." Baker and utilities officials also said they are taking resident feedback into consideration in discussing a new building. Many of the 300 or so residents who gave Austin Utilities feedback urged officials to spend as little as possible on the new building and to keep a customer service office in the downtown area. That's why utilities officials will consider two building designs.

"We know that we are spending money that our rate-payers provide to us, and we're very mindful of that," Baker said.

Utilities officials say they will try to sell the downtown plant once it's empty, as well as part of the Austin Utilities building they co-own with the city of Austin. That money could go into the project as well, which would mitigate rate increases for customers. Revitalizing the downtown plant is one of Vision 2020's 10 vision statements for improving Austin.

Officials estimate the average residential utility bill would rise by $5 to $6 per month, while a small- to medium-sized business bill would increase an average of $44 to $70 per month and a large business utility bill would increase an average $66 to $142 per month. The company will also look at federal and private grants to offset construction costs, according to Austin Utilities General Manager Mark Nibaur. The rate increase would go toward a 20-year bond for the project.

Nibaur said Wednesday that residents would hopefully see immediate results from a new building as they could visit one location for all of their needs. Utilities officials point out contractors, vendors and people looking to pay bills could all go to the same place, as Austin Utilities would have parts, department staff and customer service at one location. From there, Austin Utilities could pass savings from those efficiencies back to residents.

"As time goes on, we would hopefully be able to balance future rate changes potentially, if we had those efficiencies and we could achieve those efficiencies in our operations," Nibaur said.

Utilities officials are looking to consolidate office operations, including customer service, staff operations and administrative duties, from the seven buildings utilities workers use. Though Austin Utilities has for years looked at options to improve its efficiencies -- utilities officials bought 23 acres south of Todd Park in 2009 to potentially host a new building -- Nibaur previously said the time wasn't right to move forward until utilities officials decommissioned the downtown power plant and looked at its options.

A new building would solve a lot of safety and regulation issues for the utilities company. Austin Utilities doesn't have enough space to store essential supplies like water and gas pipes indoors, according to Nibaur, and there are numerous inefficiencies throughout utilities operations that could be eliminated through a new facility. Utilities officials estimate the company could save $2.5 million over the next 10 years with a new facility.

"There's probably a number of efficiencies we'll see in soft dollars, but we will definitely be more efficient," Nibaur said.

Moreover, the utilities company will need to create solutions to upcoming security regulations. A new facility would involve security measures for much of its operations that aren't already in place, and Nibaur said a "hardened area," which would be storm- and bomb-proof and would protect backup power generation for the city, which isn't in place now.

If all goes well, Austin Utilities could finalize a building design by the end of the year, with a request to bid the project out in early 2015. Utilities officials think the design schematics will take about two months, with another two months for development and up to six months to create construction plans. Then again, utilities officials could decide to scrap the project if a better solution comes along or if the new building cost becomes too high.

The board voted for the project Tuesday after discussing potential costs. Baker said Wednesday he was pleased the board vote was unanimous.

Austin Utilities has about 12,300 electric customers, 10,300 natural gas customers and 9,000 water customers.

___ (c)2014 the Austin Daily Herald (Austin, Minn.) Visit the Austin Daily Herald (Austin, Minn.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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