The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 9, 2013

Public Safety Center remodel near budget

By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — The city planned on spending $11.87 million to remodel its Public Safety Center. It ended up spending $11.91 million — less than one-half of a percent more.

So, pretty darn close.

But one budgeted-for improvement — rooftop solar panels — hasn’t yet materialized.

The city struck up a tentative deal in 2011, but it fell through last year after Xcel Energy ran out of its solar incentive funds for the year, Public Safety Director Todd Miller said.

The city has signed a new agreement with a company, A&P Construction, to install the panels in 2013. The project would cost about $300,000, though the new deal has the city paying virtually nothing.

Thanks to government incentives and the Xcel program, the builder can install the panels at no cost to the city.

There’s a small catch. But as far as catches go, it isn’t that bad — the city has to rent the panels for $300 a month. The builder though, has guaranteed the city will save at least $300 a month on its electric bills.

So that’s why the city can plausibly say that it will pay nothing.

In six years, the city would have to buy the panels, for about $6,000. But the panels would only take about one year to generate $6,000 worth of electricity, Miller said.

The solar panels will generate roughly 10 percent to 25 percent of the building’s electricity demand, depending partly on the size of the panels the city settles on.

Miller said he is confident the city will be able to qualify for the Xcel incentive this year.

If the project is successful, the city may install solar panels atop some of its other buildings.

How close to budget?

The panels were budgeted at $100,000, but that money wasn’t spent, obviously, because the panels weren’t added.

Some unknown amount of money was spent to accommodate an eventual solar connection, such as changes to the roof. These costs were included in the general construction contract.

Even so, the city’s financial document still includes the solar line item in the original budget. The document compares the original budget with what was actually spent in an effort to see how close to budget the project ended up.

The document reports that the project is over-budget by $42,560, or .4 percent of the total.

But another way of looking at the budget is that the $100,000 solar-panel item shouldn’t be included in the original budget because it was never delivered. In other words, including item in the original budget inflates it, giving the final budget $100,000 more in wiggle room.

If the panels were to be taken out of the budget, the cost overrun would rise from .4 percent to 1.2 percent.

Miller said the solar panel item was included because the city still plans on doing the project. And costs routinely run over and under budget. This is simply one of those cases, he said.