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Debate continues regarding future of power plant

August 29, 2018

The fate of the David City Power Plant is still up in the air, but more spirited – at times emotional and heated – conversation filled the City Council Chambers during an Aug. 22 meeting.

While there weren’t many in attendance, a handful of people gathered spoke in opposition of closing down the plant which generates approximately $25,000 monthly for the city through a wholesale purchase agreement with the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD).

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, said council member Skip Trowbridge, who spoke vehemently Aug. 22 in opposition of the plant remaining open.

Trowbridge said that keeping the 1920s-built plant open doesn’t make sense because there’s no second line of defense if Power Plant Superintendent Eric Betzen leaves the city or if he’s unable to get to the plant to start it if notified by NPPD, as well as the fact that numerous large plant expenditures over an eight-year-long course set the city back financially.

More than $1 million in checks have been issued by the city for power plant repair and improvement over that time frame, Trowbridge said, noting these capital expenditures are being made to a facility that spends minimal time up and running.

“They unlock the door and then wait until 5 o’clock to lock it again,” Trowbridge alleged. “The plant has started once since last December. The engines were turned on, I believe, in March of this year and have been turned on for about two hours total in eight months.”

Trowbridge, who served as mayor of David City from 2006-2010, said that with virtually no use, high maintenance costs and with expenditures topping revenues, it makes no sense to keep the facility running. Trowbridge said that before he left the mayoral office he told Betzen that he needed to train someone so or she could run the plant if it was needed.

“Right now we can get it started with Eric Betzen, but he is the only guy in the county that can start the engines,” Trowbridge said. “And he has refused to train anybody.”

During a Monday interview with The Banner-Press, Betzen refuted Trowbridge’s comments.

“I have trained people within the city, I’ve had people that were hired outside of the city who have obviously went elsewhere for better jobs, better money,” Betzen said. “I cross-trained four within the city from 2010 until present day. One got fired, one went to run his own business, one went down the road for more money and one got pushed out by Skip.”

Trowbridge argued during the meeting that his stance on the issue is nothing personal, but rather it’s to fight for the taxpayers of David City whom he was elected by to watch out for their best financial interests.

Conflicting financial reports have been presented to the Council. During the meeting, Trowbridge presented numbers illustrating how the plants’ total expenditures – largely capital expenditures – have resulted in enormous losses.

“Over the course of the last eight years we have spent $1.8 million more than we have taken in,” Trowbridge said. “We paid the balance of the three engines -- there’s seven over there. Three were bought 21 years ago and we finally just paid them off this year. We are finally back to the point where we don’t have any payments on the engines.”

Trowbridge said his information regarding expenses was collected from sifting through years of council documents highlighting each individual out-of-pocket expense and bond issuance that went toward plant needs and repairs.

“Skip needs to check his numbers, because nobody really knows where he gets the numbers that he talks about,” Betzen said.

In contrast, a report presented to the council from Wastewater Department Head Travis Hays shows there has actually been a small revenue of nearly $26,500 over the past eight years.

“Although I will stand by the fact that the revenue and expense account numbers in my report were 100-percent correct … I will admit that I was unaware of the fact that much of the catalytic converter costs were bonded out,” Hays said, through an emailed statement. “I saw expenses in the department budget reports for both the purchase and installation of the converters so (I) was under the impression that was the total cost. Bond payments are made from an entirely different account, so they were missed and therefore did not show up in my report.”

The catalytic converter project was a substantial expense that took place over the approximate time frame of 2011-2013, released information from Hays shows. The need for new catalytic converters, which convert toxic gases and pollutants in exhaust gas from an internal combustion engine into less-toxic pollutants by catalyzing a redox reaction, were purchased to be in compliance with standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

If the plant closed this year, with all payments up to date, the city could exit its current contract with NPPD without being penalized. It also would ensure the city wouldn’t have to worry about future capital expenditures, Trowbridge said.

But it would also have to find new people to complete several jobs and tasks around town, according to Hays, which would fall directly into taxpayers’ laps.

“As an employee of the city, I can say the work done by the power plant employees is essential,” Hays said. “In the event of routine repairs, and of course unexpected power outages due to mechanical failures and many forms of nature, they run the switch gear to help keep the line crew – and public – safe during repair.

He added Betzen and his one employee maintain the building and equipment on a daily basis to protect taxpayers’ assets, as well as completing snow removal during the winter. In the summer, he said, Betzen and his staff mow power plant property, water plant property, water tower and wells area, the city office and Jaycee Park, among others.

In response, Trowbridge noted that with closure this work could be outsourced at a cost less than what is currently being paid to the city employees.

Mayor Alan Zavodny said that good arguments were made on both sides, but one thing that should be able to be agreed upon is that large expenses can no longer go toward the plant.

“Either the time Eric leaves, or we face our first capital expenditure of any significance, that’s when it’s not sustainable,” Zavodny said. “Right now it might be if we don’t spend anything like we have, but history would show we are not very good at that …

“I think this was a helpful discussion and we hit most of the problems that we have. If we lose one of those engines we cannot fulfill our capacity agreement with NPPD, but as it is now, I think we should think over it some more. We still have time to look the budget one more time through. But, it does make some sense to say, ‘OK, no more capital expenditures.’”

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at sam.pimper@lee.net.

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