City staff begins correcting newly discovered issues

Photo by Chad Koenen
The city-owned Countryview apartment building received a new roof after inclement weather damaged the roof at the building. 

By Chad Koenen

Publisher

An independent audit of the Henning Utility Department found several issues regarding billing and equipment which was in need of repair.

During its regularly scheduled meeting on Monday night, the Henning City Council heard the findings of an independent report prepared by Weber Integration. The report became necessary following several concerns raised by the city’s new utility reading company, which it temporarily hired after several employees left the City of Henning. 

Henning Mayor Darren Wiese said over the past four months the city has spent quite a bit of time with IT representatives and the city’s software program to attempt to correct the issues. 

Photo by Chad Koenen
The Henning City Council approved the purchase of a building located at 400 Douglas Ave. The building previously served as the home of the Henning Advocate, but most recently was a residence. A coal shoot was found near the building, which could have created some issues for the 2024 Highway 108 project. The city is planning to tear the building down and sell the vacant lot at a later date. 

“We believe we have corrected it for the most part,” he said. “We had 77 accounts that were screwed up going back as far as 2016. Thirty plus of these were not even hooked up. Either the puck wasn’t hooked up, or the wires going to the meter wasn’t hooked up.”

  In July 2022 the report stated there were a total of 77 meters that registered as a misread. Each of those misreads would have been estimated in the city’s system. Some of the issues reportedly go back several years. 

In order to correct the issue, Weber Integration suggested that city staff audit all of the estimates to see if there was a reason for a misread. This could be done by performing a service call to ensure proper readings in the future. The audit also suggested the city replace broken or inoperable meters, which was one of the primary causes for misreads, as well as audit and correct customer and meter information on an ongoing basis to ensure properly working meters. 

Upon learning about the issue, new Utilities Supervisor Ted Strand said the city was able to identify the 77 improperly working meters and have repaired all of about 30 meters to date. 

In addition to correcting issues with the city’s utility billing and equipment, Wiese said the report was important as the current city staff has been subject to quite a bit of scrutiny as they attempt to fix the errors that were recently discovered. 

“One of the reasons this is so important…is the utilities people have been subject to a lot of scrutiny that has been there for a long time,” said Wiese. “We are done just bandaging this so we are fixing these. They are connecting all of these meters.”

While not necessarily in the report, the city council also heard that a natural gas meter at the hatchery building in Henning was too small to register all of the gas being pumped through the line. 

Strand was recently informed the hatchery had complaints that it couldn’t get enough energy to heat the building. As a result, they added additional heaters to keep the building warm. The meter on the building could register approximately 1 million BTU, but Strand said up to 1.6 million BTU of gas was being used at times at the facility.

“This meter was spinning so fast that it wasn’t registering (all of) the gas,” he said. 

Henning City Councilman Jim Haberer said the unfortunate part about the issue at the hatchery was an engineer was probably involved with the installation of the meter at one point. However, when more heaters were added at the hatchery they began using more heat than could be registered by a meter.

Strand said that is why the city should make sure to complete a yearly audit of some of their biggest natural gas accounts to ensure proper readings and properly working equipment. An audit like that had reportedly not been completed in quite some time. 

“That’s why the audit should be done every year to check the accuracy and to make sure this type of stuff is done,” he said. “This is the type of stuff we are trying to take care of and get fixed.” 

In other news

• Heard a request from Michael and Randi Reese for the city’s approval to seek grant funding from Otter Tail County to fix the roof of a building located at 503 Fergus Ave. in Henning. Their goal is to fix up the commercial building and use it for anything from apartments to mixed use commercial space. 

• Approved a temporary ban on businesses selling THC and CBD products in the city limits. The city council is currently working on an ordinance with several other communities, but did not have anything in place to ban those types of businesses at this time.

• Closed the city council meeting to discuss a dispute with Sellin Brothers concerning the 2nd St. project.

• Approved an additional payment of $2,500 to Ottertail Enterprises for the shingling project that was completed at Countryview Apartments. The contractor that completed the work also repaired several leaks that were also found. 

• Approved increasing the pay for election judges from $15 an hour to $20 an hour. The increase will bring the City of Henning judges in line with the pay currently being received by Henning Township judges. The township and city elections are both held at Henning City Hall.

• Approved the purchase of a property located at 400 Douglas Ave. in downtown Henning. The council learned the now vacant building has a coal shoot that could result in a costly repair when the Highway 108 project comes through town in 2024. The council approved spending up to $6,000 to purchase the building, tear it down and fill in the coal shoot. Once the repairs are made the vacant lot could then be sold. 

• Heard an update from Willow Creek Executive Director Lisa Augustus who said the facility’s census is up to 27 residents, of which 21 are on services. She said she will need additional full-time staff members to meet the increasing demand of people on services at the facility. The council said it would like to hold off on hiring additional full-time staff members and dramatically increasing the pay for part-time staff until an employee rate study is completed. That study is expected to be completed in the next few weeks. 

•  Discussed potentially implementing a sales tax in the City of Henning. Councilman Scott Hart said the sales tax could be used for things like improvements to the baseball and softball fields, additional camping sites, picnic shelters, city parks and improvements to the city’s trail system. The sales tax would need to be approved by city voters prior to implementation. Hart said he will bring a more fine tuned plan for a potential sales tax to the next city council meeting.

• Discussed the recommendation of Brandon Morely and Chelsea Waskosky as Henning Ambulance Service co-directors. Morely had been recommended for the position by former co-director Jane Cook in July. However, the city council requested that a full vote of the ambulance service be taken regarding the appointment of a new co-director. That was recently completed with Morely and Waskosky being recommended for the position. Despite the recommendation, council member Tammy Fosse said she was not comfortable with the appointment of Morely as co-director. The city council put several stipulations on his appointment like not being able to drive when responding to calls. The council also discussed having a paid co-director position that would be in the city hall more frequently and once again asked the ambulance service to look its recommendation to the city council, given the new stipulations regarding driving. 

• Discussed several issues concerning utility meters. Strand said there were three issues they found in the city where someone was paying for an extra meter, but it was never hooked up or being used. Some of the issues go back at least five or six years. The city council agreed to give up to a one year credit for the meter fee on the bill of the individuals who were charged for a meter fee, but it was never hooked up. Wiese said one individual raised a concern about the additional fee five or six years ago, but nothing was ever done to correct the issue. The city council agreed to give a reimbursement for up to three years since a concern was raised in the past.