It takes a village: A look at infrastructure improvements

As a news outlet our readers regularly request that we look into why things happen, or don’t happen fast enough, in the city. It’s easy to take things like stable electricity, navigable roads, and clean water for granted. As citizens, we are often unaware of the daily workings of the many departments that keep things operational. And, as many things happen on a level where we can’t see immediate, physical results, we often lean toward the opinion that nothing is being done, or at least it’s not being done right.

But upon request, several City officials sat down to discuss past, present and future projects that are focused on improving the overall infrastructure of the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase.

“We’re constantly maintaining,” said City Utility Director Charles Brossette. “It’s never-ending.”

You can imagine that everything ages out eventually, and being that Natchitoches was founded in 1714 there’s always work to be done. You also have to factor in that as time goes on, costs continue to rise. So while several decades ago an Oldsmobile sedan cost $375, some of the larger trucks for utility work can range from $150,000 – $300,000.

This sets the scene to talk about improvement projects. Overlaying streets is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Mayor Lee Posey, in the last 6 years the City has done $10 million worth of street overlays. In the previous 20 years, only $6 million worth of overlays were completed.

Major water, sewer, and electrical improvements over the last 4-6 years have totaled an estimated $13.4 million (SEE DOCUMENTS BELOW). However, it’s important to note that all this work was done with available funds in the City’s Utility Fund, not borrowed money.

“Because the majority of the projects are in-house funded, the City is making sure tax payers dollars are well spent,” said Assistant Utility Director Matt Anderson. “We try to be prudent so we’re not accumulating debt.”

Then there’s the 5-year capital outlay plans (SEE DOCUMENT BELOW*). These are plans for the continued improvement of the city’s infrastructure and are subject to change as priorities change. A lot of time and effort goes into this planning. It’s about putting money back into the city with monthly and sometimes daily meeting to discuss power outages, sewer leaks and any other problems that need to be addressed.

A lot of time and effort goes into these outlay plans. Take for example the water system, which is an antiquated distribution system. The City is trying to replace a little more each year. This includes plans to repaint the I-49 water tank, which is needed every 10 years. Another project is in the engineering phases to replace cast iron mains in East and West Natchitoches in the neighborhoods around the streets Gold, Stella, Stephens, Carver, Henry and Scarborough.

In the Electric Department the ring bus system that’s been in the works for a while now is 90 percent complete. The completion of this project will cut citywide outages by 75 percent.

The biggest consideration when planning improvement projects is to look ahead and think about the life of equipment over the next 30 years.

“We don’t sit around and wait for things to break,” said Electric Department Supervisor Lee McKinney. “We try to predict when things will need to be replaced or worked on.”

Breakers have to maintain future loads and handle greater capacities so the city can continue to grow. The master lift station that was first built in 1993 was rebuilt and finished in 2019. It was built bigger to last the City another 30-40 years worth of growth. Forty-year-old underground primary cable will be replaced along Royal Street. The installation will include new duct banks so yards won’t have to be dug up anymore for repairs and other work. In a few weeks, a crew will come in to trim trees from power lines over a two-month period.

On top of all this, the Electric Department is continuously adding to the City’s electric grid. The City is currently pulling 67MW, but it’s capacity if 150 MW

“We overbuilt the system,” said Purchasing Director Edd Lee. “ This way the electric grid can accommodate industries that are interested in moving to Natchitoches.”

At the end of the day this may seem like a daunting task. And it is. It takes a lot of dedicated people who are willing to work no matter the temperature or weather conditions. There’s about 26 employees in the Electric Department with another 10 at the Utility Payment Center. The Water and Sewer Department has about 28 employees. Of these there are two full-time operators at the water and sewer plant. Someone must be at the water plant 24/7. There’s also a contract worker at the Utility Department to dispatch service calls outside of normal business hours.

There’s also a lot of training and schooling that’s required to keep up with ever-changing rules and regulations. These men and women miss out on a lot of personal time with their families to make sure the lights stay on and everything runs properly throughout the city.

Let’s not forget about all the other departments including Public Works, Recreation, Community Development, the Airport, Police and Fire, Finance, and Planning and Zoning. We probably left someone off the list, but this just goes to show that the City of Natchitoches is a machine with many moving parts.

Now to wrap up, let’s throw in the fact that these same men and women are the ones that maintain and install the Christmas lights that make this City so famous. On top of their regularly scheduled hours and call-outs at night and on the weekends, they decorate the City with thousands of twinkling lights, which takes them three months (September through November) to complete.

“It’s different for everyone but we all have a reason why we do what we do,” said McKinney. “We may have to work in the middle of the night and things may be hard and dangerous at times, but it’s all worthwhile when someone expresses their appreciation for their lights being turned back on or when you see the awe on a child’s face as they watch you climb a power line pole.”

Brosette and Anderson echoed the same sentiment, saying that while their jobs can be challenging, it’s something different every day.

This is a lot of information and some of it might not make sense to the average layperson, but it’s all important and it all needs to happen to keep Natchitoches running and growing toward the future.

  • The 5-year capital outlay plan is subject to change based on the City’s need and priorities and project amounts are estimates.