Princeton city leaders selected a familiar face when unanimously approving an applicant to fill a vacant Princeton Public Utilities Commission position.
Two-time applicant Richard Schwartz was selected by the council June 11 to serve out the remainder of an open seat that has a term expiring Dec. 31.
Local business owner Trevor Karsky was the other applicant who completed an interview at Princeton City Hall during the city council’s regular meeting.
Councilor Jenny Gerold, who was slated to replace former PUC Chair and Commissioner Mindi Siercks April 1, initially declined the interim position.
Gerold stated she had decided to remain the council’s liaison to the PPU Commission but would not be taking a seat as an acting commissioner.
Before Gerold could be sworn in April 22 she read from a prepared statement.
Her statement included allegations that PPU General Manager Keith Butcher, Siercks, Commissioner Dan Erickson, and current Commission Chair Greg Hanson had no desire in having a cohesive working relationship with the city.
Gerold also accused PUC members, fellow city council members, and unnamed community members of threats, bullying, false accusations, and misinformation.
She also mentioned a surprise March 25 decision by Butcher, Siercks, Erickson, and Hanson to adopt a resolution that discontinued city financial support.
In 1997, Princeton Utilities agreed to pay the city $4,375 a month or $52,500 annually. Commissioners unanimously voted March 25 to discontinue its payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) after a lengthy and sometimes tense discussion.
Finance Director Steve Jackson confirmed the PILOT had been $52,500 annually for more than 20 years.
The city had collected three months’ worth of PILOT before PPU commissioners took action, leaving a shortfall of about $40,000 for the budget year.
During separate interviews conducted last Thursday, city council members used a round-robin format to ask Schwartz and Karsky the same 15 questions.
Those questions included a summary of talents and qualifications, stated goals and objectives as a commissioner, and questions about perceived views of Princeton Public Utilities and its tenuous relationship with the city.
Schwartz’s application for the PUC included two pages of information related to his educational and professional experience and civic and community activities.
A self-employed business owner of 35-plus years, Schwartz was born and raised in Princeton and has served with the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce, the city’s retail committee, and its downtown development committee.
He is a long-serving member of the Princeton and Zimmerman Knights of Columbus Council.
“I’ve had my eye on this position for a long time,” Schwartz said, referring to his previous PUC applications that had been submitted in the past year. “I’m a hands-on person who is all business. If I see a solution to a problem, I’m a fixer.”
Schwartz said he’s been attending PUC meetings regularly the last 16 months.
Currently, the Princeton Public Utilities is governed by a three-person board and is a standalone entity. Applicants were asked about expanding to five members.
Schwartz said he would support such a move, and work towards implementing it.
When asked how he would control or reduce PPU expenditures and assure reasonable rates for customers, Schwartz replied, “I’m a real lean businessman. I don’t leave a lot of candy on the table. To me, that’s a highly personal thing.”
Regarding the current perception of PPU, Schwartz rated it as poor.
“You can walk down the street and ask that question, and the answer is pretty consistent.”
However, Schwartz also stated that any perception problems could not be solely blamed on the PUC.
“That’s not accurate,” he said, adding that he would work to end any attacks that were not fact-based as well as current political mudslinging.
Cultivating an improved relationship and partnership between the PPU and the city of Princeton and its leaders would be another critical goal for Schwartz.
When asked to provide positive and negative comments about PPU, Schwartz cited quick response times to service calls as a huge positive.
“Those times are incredible,” he said. On the flip side, a current negative was PPU’s current public image.
Schwartz said it was extremely important for the city to get the PILOT reinstated.
“You have to get this back” he said. “The city and PPU work together a great deal. A lot of free stuff goes back and forth. You need to look at the whole picture.”
When asked why the city council should select him as the new PUC commissioner, Schwartz used a direct comparison of his application and Karsky’s submission.
“I just met him tonight before walking into this room,” Schwartz said. “Nothing against him, but look at my application and compare it. His only has 27 total words. I have the experience, business record, and background that’s difficult to beat. I’ve been around and I can hit the ground running,” he stated.
Schwartz added that he would apply for the full commission term at year’s end.
“This isn’t a six-month project for me,” he said. “I would run for the three years.”
Questions For Council
After the council had completed its questioning, Schwartz turned the tables and asked individual city leaders questions about their PPU and commission goals.
Schwartz said during the PUC meeting that he’s attended, possible utility expansion and service territories were issues mentioned more than once.
“How much additional load demand can PUC take on?” Schwartz asked. “Do we know what the demand would be? Is the city of Princeton set up to expand?"
Schwartz then asked Councilor Jeff Reynolds for his No. 1 concern regarding the PUC. Reynolds replied, “Billing accuracy and customer service.”
Gerold was asked for her key PUC concerns. Gerold replied it was important for the PUC to make sure its rates remained comparable. She also stressed it was important for the PUC to interact as a team player with the city.
Schwartz asked Mayor Brad Schumacher for his top concern. Schumacher replied, “That’s really easy. Princeton Public Utilities uses $5.3 million worth of real estate within the city limits and they do not pay their fair share in property taxes.”
Schumacher’s explained his statement by pointing out that two counties, the city, and the Princeton School District all collect property tax.
Currently, Princeton Public Utilities does not pay any property taxes to any one of those entities. Schwartz requested a meeting with Schumacher to review that concern in detail.
Schumacher said he would give Schwartz a two-page Sherburne County property tax summary, sales, valuation, and tax history that he had downloaded.
“Connexus Energy, behind Crystal Cabinets, has a building that happens to be worth $540,000,” Schumacher explained. “If you take that amount times 10, Princeton Public Utilities should pay $1.8 million in tax revenue to our schools, counties, and to the city. You can go to the tax books and look this up.”
Schumacher accused PUC Commissioner Dan Erickson of “knee-jerk leadership” in making a motion March 25 to end the PILOT payment to the city of Princeton.
Schwartz then asked Schumacher if reinstatement of the PILOT program was the mayor’s highest priority regarding the PPU and its commission.
Schumacher replied, “The No. 1 priority is for everyone to participate in the community and pay their fair share like East Central Energy does and like Connexus Energy does.” Those utilities are member-owned electric cooperatives.
Schwartz said if appointed to the PUC, he was willing to dig into the issue.
Schumacher replied, “You are good and aggressive, and would get the job done. My fear is you are going to be put on a three-member board and you need to get the members of that group to participate. You have to bring them with you.”
Schumacher agreed with Gerold’s previous contention that the PUC didn’t call a special meeting when it made the decision to abandon the PILOT program.
“Putting you on the PUC puts you in a position where you are going to have to work with two people [Erickson and Hanson] who are not willing to work with the community,” Schumacher said. Schwartz said he wasn’t afraid of that challenge.
Schwartz then asked Councilor Jules Zimmer for his list of top PUC concerns.
Zimmer said he wanted to see a partnership between the PUC and the city that was recognizable by the entire community, ratepayers as well as taxpayers.
As an example, Zimmer mentioned a recent cooperative effort between the two entities to fix an issue with water supply to one of the city’s baseball fields.
“There wasn’t any power to the pump house, and the grass was getting really brown,” Zimmer said. “I called over to Princeton Public Works, and they met me at the ballpark right away. They determined it was a transformer issue, and the next day, PPU was there within minutes. By the end of the day, we had water.”
That example, Zimmer said, was clear to him, but not the rest of the community.
“I’d like to have the whole community see that, and get rid of the stigma PPU has high rates,” Zimmer added. “This has been shown to be false, but I still hear it.”
Zimmer said reinstating the PILOT program was a third PUC-related concern.
Councilor Jack Edmonds, former Princeton City Council liaison to the PUC, responded last to Schwartz’s query for priorities and general PPU comments.
“Until we can establish a level of trust between the Princeton Public Utilities and the city of Princeton, and that means every one of us here, there won’t be any forward progress,” Edmonds said. “The PUC needs to improve communications.”
During his commission interview, Karsky stressed his experience as owner of North Country Systems and a 21-year Princeton resident.
He said it was important for the PUC to improve its image and get the PILOT issue resolved with the city.
“I’ve got the drive to get things done, and I’m motivated,” Karsky said, adding he worked best in face-to-face situations when dealing with conflict resolution.
Karsky said it was important for the PPU and its commission to work together as a team to decide what is in the public’s best interest.
He supported increasing the size of the PUC from three members to five members. “Currently, what if one person is gone?” he asked. “Five members would get things done,” he added.
More public involvement with the PUC could help control expenditures and assure reasonable rates, Karsky said.
Face-to-face meetings would be one way of cultivating a better relationship and partnership between PPU and the city. And regarding public image and perception,
Karsky said there’s more bad than good. Restoring the PILOT payments to the city would be one of his goals.
When asked why the council should selected him to serve on the PUC, Karsky replied, “I’m more driven as a member of the younger generation. I’m here to make a change for the future.” Karsky did not ask any follow-up questions.
Council Makes Its Choice
During their post-interview discussion, council members were impressed with Schwartz’s tenacity in reapplying for the PUC position and his overall experience.
Zimmer and Gerold were the two-member council committee that provided oversight into latest round of Princeton Public Utilities commissioner interviews.
“He’s really serious about this,” Zimmer said. “This is a high-profile position.”
Gerold said it was important for the council to select a commission applicant who would be strong and not easily swayed. “Rick would be the best person,” she said.
The rest of the council concurred, and Schwartz was appointed via a 5-0 vote.