By Corey Poole
In 60-90 days, the Robeline-Marthaville Water System will receive a comprehensive study of several options it can choose from to make the system successful and sustainable.
“This is an economic development issue for the Parish,” said Knox Ross, president and CEO of the Community Development Center in Shreveport. “If you can’t provide good water at a competitive rate people will find somewhere else to live.”
Ross stepped in to help the R-MV system get water flowing again after residents were without for several days before Christmas. Thanks to Ross; Leslie Durham, the Governor’s designee for the Delta Regional Authority and a slew of other officials from state organizations, a new pump was installed and the residents in Robeline and Marthaville had water just in time for Christmas.
However, this merely solved one problem. The system’s customers still have water that’s undrinkable. Residents say they can’t even cook with it. There’s also an estimated $500,000 worth of deferred maintenance and exorbitant operational costs.
While board members have been under fire for the mismanagement of the system, they’re committed to doing whatever it takes to find a solution.
“Our easiest option would be in hand in our resignations,” said Carroll Daniels. “But we haven’t done that yet because we really have an interest in serving our community.”
Knox said it best, “At the end of the day we don’t care who’s running it (the system). We care about finding the best, most cost effective long-term solution.”
Clarence Beebe with the Louisiana Rural Water Association performed a system comparison of the R-MV and two comparable systems (SEE PHOTO AT END OF ARTICLE). R-MV’s annual operating cots are $200,585, while the other systems are at $140,473 and $129,799. R-MV also has three office employees, one operator and an outside source for billing while the other systems are run with two employees respectively.
“Obviously there’s too much manpower there to do the job,” said Knox.
The R-MV system also pays its employees health benefits. “Maybe we had a soft heart that night and didn’t look at the finances enough,” said Carroll Daniels. Some employees didn’t have health insurance so we gave it to them. We rubber stamped and approved what came across our desk and that’s just what we’ve done.”
While cuts to administrative costs can be looked into immediately, there are bigger problems to deal with. System Operator Randy Byrd said all the meters need to be replaced. “You’re losing money right there.” Engineer Ken McManus estimated it’s a pretty high loss at 30-40 percent.
Option 1: Cut operating costs to free up capital to upgrade the system in-house by redoing the pump station on Nelson Road and drilling more wells at the Cassidy Springs Well. Robeline owns an acre surrounding the current well that Byrd managed to start up again, which would meet the space requirements for such an expansion project. This total project would cost an estimated $1 million.
Beebe was skeptical about this option because with the R-MV system’s recent rate increase to $34 a month and its current financial predicament, he said he finds it unfeasible that it would be able to pay for such an expensive project.
Option 2: Hook into the Sabine Parish Water District #1, buy water from this system and continue to run the R-MV system as its own entity.
“We’ve got good water and a lot of it and we’re willing to share our resources,” said Water Mains with the Sabine Parish Water District #1.
Option 3: With help from USDA Rural Development, look at what it would take to combine the R-MV and Sabine water systems. The R-MV system could maintain an office in Robeline for billing purposes or use a drop box system to collect payments. This tie-in would take 2.5 miles of additional pipes to connect the systems, at an estimated cost of $50,000 per mile.
“The best option may not be the least expensive one, but it’ll be the one that sets up this area for long-term service and success,” said Ross.