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Communication a concern for utilities, energy
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MONROE - The best method for communicating emergency alerts and general information remains a priority for the city of Monroe as community members look at an updated comprehensive plan for the city.

Tuesday's community input meeting focused on utilities and energy management. Previous topics have included transportation; the arts; recreation and natural resources; and economic development.

A meeting last week began the discussion on the future of utilities and energy management and resulted in a vision statement of crafting "a resilient utilities system for the future of Monroe."

Being resilient is two-fold. It means being prepared and able to expand to meet growing needs in the future. It also means being prepared for emergencies, such as natural disasters and power outages, said Mayor Bill Ross.

The issue of communication has been a common theme throughout all the meetings, said Savannah Ernzen, a planner with Southwestern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. The SWWRPC is facilitating the meetings and will be drafting the comprehensive plan based on community input.

Getting the word out to the public effectively has "proven difficult," agreed Colin Simpson, the city's director of public works. He said the city has used a combination of announcements in its annual recreation guide; in water utility bills; in The Monroe Times and local radio; and in social media, only to learn many residents still weren't informed.

In some cases, such as a city-issued boil alert if the water supply were to become contaminated, informing the public immediately is imperative. Nixle, an emergency alert system used by municipalities, is one possibility, but it requires users to opt into the system and there's no way to make sure people read the emails or text alerts they receive, Simpson said.

Another challenge for the city is broadening internet infrastructure coming into Monroe.

Currently, TDS is the primary internet provider in the city. "They are essentially our link to the outside world," Simpson said. Charter Communications provides some service in the city, but piggy-backs on TDS's infrastructure. Having so much dependence on one provider's infrastructure puts the city at a potential risk.

"There's a wire out there somewhere that if you snipped it, the entire city would lose internet," Simpson said.

The city is looking at options to bring in more internet providers to help lessen the risk, he said.

The group identified several strengths for the city's utilities. The city has comparatively low utility rates. Both the wastewater treatment plant and Alliant Energy have the capacity to support moderate growth in the city. And, the Monroe Fire Department is in the top 4 percent nationally for its response time. All of these factors are helpful in attracting new businesses to town, participants agreed.

Alliant Energy is also well prepared to restore power to the wastewater treatment plant and Monroe Clinic hospital, two vital locations, should there be an outage, said Alliant's Troy Pillz.

Making Monroe's utility infrastructure "green" and with sustainable operations were other themes noted.

One of the features of the newly-updated wastewater treatment plant is the ability to route high-strength waste directly into a digester, Simpson said. The city has a high percentage of "wet industries," such as cheese plants and the brewery, which produce high-strength waste. Routing this waste directly to the digester saves energy and money for the plant. The plant is also able to take methane from the digester and use it to power a turbine.

Encouraging composting, either for residences or industries, is another avenue to save money, Simpson said.

"Wet garbage (comprised of food materials) is one of the most expensive things to throw away. It's full of water," he said. The plant will be able to save money by keeping as many solids as possible from entering the system, thus not having to be processed.

Simpson also said the city is looking at changing the model it uses for rate increases, making small annual bumps rather than one large hike every several years. Monroe is working on a potential rate increase for wastewater; while no rate has been determined, Simpson estimated it could be an increase of 23 percent. A large hike such as this makes it difficult for wet industries to budget their costs and providing long-term rate projections may be a better solution, he said, suggesting the city get on a program with single-digit, annual increases each year.