There was much debate at Monday night’s City Council meeting, July 10, about the introduction of an ordinance to raise the water and sewer rates (SEE Rate Increase Chart BELOW).
Some were for the increases and some were against, but the bottom line seemed to be that without the rate increase to fund water and sewer improvements, the City’s infrastructure will only continue to deteriorate, as will the chances of bringing any further industry to the area.
Shuler Consulting Company revised the existing rate structure to allow the water and sewer departments to become more financially independent with regard to securing revenue for operating, maintenance and capital expenditures. Currently the water department is facing an approximate $300,000 deficit and the sewer department is facing an approximate $700,000 deficit. A big portion of the rate increase ($2 million annually) will be put toward capital improvements. There will also be a $1 million annual transfer from the sales tax reeducation to supplement this set of rates.
There is a 5-year list of projects that vary in severity and cost. Among these, it’s estimated $1 million annually will need to go toward replacing pipe lines to begin to make a difference in the City’s infrastructure. The increased rates won’t even balance the finances in the sewer department because the City didn’t want to go up as high on the rates as they would have needed to.
“We just have to stop the bleeding,” said Mayor Lee Posey.
The representative from Shuler Consulting referenced a recent pipe that cracked and leaked sewage into Cane River. He said that unless the City starts to tackle some of these projects, it will continue to see similar issues arise.
“Through this process we’ve discovered we’re more behind on water and sewer than we thought,” said Posey. “We cannot stay status quo or this town will die.”
The City is very old and some of the cast iron sewer mains are originals from the 50s and 60s. A lot of the City’s distribution issues can be attributed to the old age of the infrastructure.
The good part about this increase, is that the City waited until they renegotiated a few contracts with Cleco. They wanted to wait to increase other rates until there was a significant decrease in the electrical rates. Director of Finance Pat Jones said the decrease in electrical and increase in water/sewer should balance each other out, or be a $5-10 increase at most.
Jones said the City has been doing the best it can to keep rates as low as they can, but there hasn’t been a sewer rate increase since 1990 and a water increase since 2011. Other fees haven’t been adjusted since 1982.
While Posey said the new rates will fall in line with what other cities across the state are charging, Council member Dale Nielsen said he feels they’re being compassionate about the whole process.
However, Council member Lawrence Batiste said Natchitoches doesn’t have the income of other cities. Posey was quick to respond.
“That’s part of the problem,” he said. “Natchitoches hasn’t grown any over the past few years. We’ve got to be aggressive and invest in our infrastructure. I can’t help that some people can’t afford it but we’re trying to be fair.”
He went on to say that Natchitoches has a lot of great assets that the City has been living off of for a long time.
In terms of economic development, according to Council member Eddie Harrington, if the rates aren’t approved and the infrastructure is left as it is, why would any industry want to come to Natchitoches?
“This all leads to economic development,” said Posey. “Which leads to jobs, which leads to a better quality of life for all our residents.”
Harrington summed it up best when he posed the bottom line question: “Would you rather pay a few more dollars per month or have water you can’t drink or shower in?”