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Published January 14 2014

Forum editorial: MPS labor problem is a test

Moorhead Public Service is getting reacquainted with the labor market, and not in a good way. Linemen who work for the publicly owned utility have been jumping ship for better hourly pay and benefits at Xcel Energy, the Twin Cities-based, investor-owned natural gas and electric utility. MPS, which provides electricity and water to Moorhead customers, pays its top lineman $37 an hour, about $3.50 less than Xcel’s scale. It also appears Xcel linemen have more opportunities for overtime pay.

While there is some dispute about details of the pay differential between the two utilities, MPS journeymen (experienced) lineman are going over to Xcel for what they must believe is a better deal. MPS is considering a raise in pay, but that might also mean raising utility rates, which went up last year: 3.5 percent for electricity and 3 percent for water.

Most Moorhead residents seem to love their publicly owned utility. After all, it’s been a reliable piggybank for city coffers, and thus a way to hold down property taxes, or so the story goes. But even with the regular infusion of MPS revenues into the city’s treasury, Moorhead’s financial condition can be objectively described as a mess. Consider the latest example of chronic problems: reduced hours at the Moorhead Library because funding has been cut.

Even if an argument can be made – as it has been made for decades – that property taxes are kept in check by MPS revenues, it is the residents of Moorhead who pay utility rates, which have been raised and could be raised again soon. Call those household and business costs utility bills, but because MPS is a function of government, utility rates are in effect a tax.

This latest development raises questions: Should the city own electric utility service? Should Moorhead sell the electricity service function to Xcel Energy or Ottertail Power Co. of Fergus Falls? (Water is a different matter.) There are no easy answers, especially in the context of Moorhead’s long love affair with its public utility. Nevertheless, the questions should be asked.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.