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Utility merger gets OK to move forward
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MONROE - The merger of the city water and wastewater treatment departments got the green light to proceed this week, as the director of each was authorized to proceed with plans to combine the two utilities.

George Thompson, the wastewater utility superintendent, and Mike Kennison, the water utility supervisor, prepared the plan, which passed through an ad hoc committee for restructuring city government in July. On Tuesday, the Salary and Personnel Committee authorized the two department heads to proceed with their plan.

A major aspect of the restructuring is to cross-train many, if not all, employees to work in either utility.

"Cross-training is an important ingredient in it, even if it's not accomplished until five years down the road," said Charles Koch, committee chairman.

Koch said the city has been talking about the benefits of cross-training employees "for some time."

"It's nice to see it getting started," he added.

Thompson estimated the plan could be fully implemented in two to five years.

One advantage of starting to cross-train now is "to have people on board as the wastewater treatment plant expands," said Tyler Schultz, committee member.

Cross-training would allow the utility directors "to draw from each other's department's" and create on-call rotations from a bigger pool, Thompson said.

"Now, when there's a call, two people have to respond - one from each department," he said.

Cross-training would also facilitate employee work and vacation schedules, as well as accommodate for sick leaves. The city's expenses would be reduced by combining administration, operation and maintenance staff.

While combining the departments seems to be a good idea, committee members asked several times for the drawbacks to the plan.

"You'll potentially have some training costs," said Phil Rath, city administrator, "but you should get back the benefits of that training."

Thompson is expecting some "growing pains," with resistance from some employees who worry about jobs being cut.

"We're at the bare bones minimum now," said Koch, "so there shouldn't be any concerns."

Rath said the city would see cost savings without cutting employees. Some of that savings would come from better coordination of project planning, according to Thompson.

Thompson and Kennison plan to get employee input as they move the merger along, as well as union advice about pay scale differences. Operator pay levels are about the same, but the wastewater operators have sub-categories, Kennison said.

Kennison plans to cross-train immediately, preparing to handle some wastewater supervisory responsibilities. Thompson, with an engineering degree, is expected to take the lead on the merged utilities, in addition to covering wastewater supervisor tasks.

Mayor Bill Ross said the Public Service Commission would approve such a merger, as long as the utilities keep separate accounts.