City Council discusses new public safety position, increase in utility rates

The introduction of an ordinance for the creation of a new Director of Public Safety position and the appointment of Jay D. Oliphant to the position did not go over well with everyone in attendance at the City Council meeting on Dec. 12. While there was much debate, the ordinance was only up for introduction. There will be a public hearing at the next City Council meeting on Monday, Jan. 9 when the Council members will cast their votes.

Some community members expressed their frustration over the violence occurring in Natchitoches and the lack of justice being served. They asked for more help and support for families in need of help from crimes and the loss of loved ones to homicide. The consensus was that if there’s someone who can improve the situation in Natchitoches, they would want him [Jay D. Oliphant] to be there.

“Natchitoches too small for too many murders to happen back to back like that,” said Mary Hymes, who lost her son on Jan. 30. “Ain’t nothing getting done, not nothing.”

Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr. expressed sincere sentiments to everyone who has experienced such pain.

Other community members who spoke before the Council expressed concern over hiring another administrative employee, when more cops need to be hired to patrol the streets. However, another attendee said the problem is that the African American communities aren’t being patrolled in the first place, not unless there’s a tragedy first to bring them out.

“We need to continue the conversation on what we can do overall,” said Council member Chris Petite, regarding the Director of Public Safety position and the ordinance up for introduction to raise utility rates. “It takes everyone working together to really get the ball rolling on these murders.”

Forewarning the room that her words weren’t meant to offend, but might be unpopular, Council Member at Large Betty Sawyer Smith said, “We all have a concern about safety in our community and about the crime here in Natchitoches. I do not believe that putting a position of an administrator as public safety director is going to decrease or help with crime. That’s not going to do it.”

Not to be taken the wrong way, Smith added that if the Council isn’t pleased with what the current Police Chief is doing, then maybe the direction to go in, is to replace that person. The solution is not to create a position with monies that should be spent on hiring new officers.

“We’re losing officers. These officers are going somewhere else where they can make a decent living,” said Smith. “Our workers are underpaid. You can go to Target and make more than what our police officers and firemen are making, $8 an hour, working over 244 hours a month.”

Smith’s proposed solution is to use the money proposed to fund the public safety director and his work, to hire more officers to patrol the streets.

Mayor Williams responded by assuring everyone that the public safety director position will not take away from adding more officers. He said the salary for the new position ($85,000) would only fund “one-and-a-half officers.”

“You’re going to need to have way more money than that,” he said.

He then explained how the next item on the meeting’s agenda would go toward funding officer pay raises at a proposed rate of $15 an hour.

Agenda item #086 (for introduction) is an ordinance to amend and reenact Sections 30-18 and 30-42 to implement changes in new rates for electrical service, and a new rate schedule.

“Morale for the departments is at an all time low,” said Council member Eddie Harrington, who also spoke for absent Council member Dale Nielsen, who is adamantly against the ordinance as well. “The police department is down 12 officers right now. That’s 12 officers that should be out patrolling more in your neighborhoods…We need to have a lot more than 12 more officers. And we know we do and the crime shows that we do.”

The officers that are working are working “like dogs.”

Eddie said he feels there are people behind desks already, so hiring another person to do the same isn’t going to cut it.

“This is absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Oliphant,” Harrington explained. “It’s about being efficient and effective and how to use that money to stop what’s happening and how to get more people in these neighborhoods.”

He also said that just the increase in utility rates isn’t going to cut it. The increase will just go to cover the gap in the police department budget caused by pulling monies to fund the new administrative position.

On top of this, Eddie also addressed the fact that he hadn’t even seen the ordinance, hadn’t read it, and still didn’t have the full ordinance, which wasn’t included in the Council members’ packets for the meeting. City Attorney Alex Washington said there was an oversight on including the ordinance in the Council members’ packets.

The ordinance also addressed the division of the current position of purchasing and human resources into two separate positions. According to Harrington, two separate ordinances should be drawn up to deal with the creation of two separate positions, however Williams and Washington agreed that the ordinance could stay “as is” because the positions are all part of the administrative reorganization.

What Harrington found most frustrating is that there was a public announcement with the press conference held on Dec. 7, before the ordinance was even created, before a vote or an introduction, before a conversation with Council members.

Williams explained that the nature of how the administrative reorganization works is that something has to be announced and that, while something has to go before the Council, nothing says the announcement has to be made at the City Council meeting.

Williams knows there’s been an increase in shootings and deaths caused by gun violence. Recent stats for homicide by shootings show there were two in 2018, three in 2019, three in 2020, five in 2021, and eight in 2022.

“We can’t sufficiently address this issue without a teamwork mentality,” said Williams. “I think having a director of public safety will enhance what we do already.” Having worked in education for years, he compared the director of public safety director to master teachers in the public school system who are there to support the teachers with implementing policies and procedures so the students can learn. The job description itself states, “to provide administrative and operational input regarding day to day operations of the police department and the fire department.”

Williams added that there are any number of ways the City could fund the position, such as American Rescue Plan funding. Addressing a recent op ed in the news that said only bigger cities create this kind of position, Williams said Natchitoches is starting to deal with some bigger city issues. But if it walks like a gang and talks like a gang, it’s probably a gang.

“I understand that feelings have been disturbed, I get that,” said Williams. “I am also unapologetic about that…I’m putting the safety of our residents number one. If I didn’t think chiefs were confident, they wouldn’t be here. Being your mayor, I don’t want to be the smartest person in the room. We need intelligent people to help us to make Natchitoches a better place. And this is what that would do. Somebody with a dynamic resume, with a dynamic story…It would compliment the dynamic minds of Chief Wynn and Chief Collins. That’s all this is.”

As for the proposed increase in the sewer service and water usage rates, Mayor Williams called it common sense solutions to the city’s infrastructure problems (SEE DOCUMENT BELOW).

 
Director of the Utility Department Matt Anderson said the plan is to rehab the existing water treatment plant. Working to solve some of these issues for a long time, the City is under an administrative order from the Louisiana Department of Health, and has satisfied five of the six requirements included in the order. The sixth one being to add capacity to the plant to rehab other parts of the plant. The City has until July of 2023 or they can be fined up to $3,000 per day. The deadline will be extended if the City can show it is actively working on the project (engineer hired, working on funding, then starting construction).
 
“July 2023 is going to be here in the blink of an eye,” said Anderson.
 
Rate studies showed that Natchitoches is below other, similar sized water districts. The question is, What rates are needed to fix the water plant?
 
When the project is complete the plant will be able to produce 10.5 million gallons of water a day (currently able to produce 8 million gallons a day). There’s a tiered system that will be implemented to increase the water rate while lessening the impact on those who are “less able to pay a water bill” and shift the cost over to those who are “more capable of paying a water bill.”
 
The total increase should be around $4 per month for most residences, smoothed over residents’ base rates and what they pay per thousand gallons. This will occur in two steps, a base rate over the next 2 years of $2 for sewer and $2 for water. There will be a $2 increase in the rate per thousand gallons over 2,000 gallons, which is your base amount. About 40 percent of customers fall in the base rate amount.
 
Agenda items included:

Approve The Transfer Of Airport Hanger And Authorizing The Mayor Of The City Of Natchitoches, Ronnie Williams, Jr., To Execute A Lease In Favor Of Taylor Townsend And Van Eversull, Of Lot 39 Of The Natchitoches Regional Airport, As Shown On The Airport Layout Plan Of October 1993, And Revised September 2000, And Further Providing For Advertising Of The Lease And An Effective Date.

Designate Funds From The American Rescue Plan To Purchase A Vehicle For The City Of Natchitoches To Further The Promotion Of Public Health And Welfare And To Otherwise Provide With Respect Thereto.

ORDINANCES –  INTRODUCTION:

Amend And Reenact Section 8-1 Of Chapter 8 Of The Code Of Ordinances, Entitled Building And Building Regulations, Said Amendment Being Made To Adopt The 2021 International Property Maintenance Code, As The Official Building Maintenance Code Of The City Of Natchitoches, Louisiana, Providing For Advertising, Further Providing For Severability, And Further Providing For A Repealer And Effective Date Of Ordinance.

Create The Position Of Public Safety Commissioner And Human Resource Manager Setting Duties And Qualifications For Same, To Amend The Personnel Policies Manual, And To Provide For The Newly Created Position Of Public Safety Commissioner And Human Resource Manager In The Code Of Ordinances Of The City Of Natchitoches, To Adopt Article Vii Of Chapter 2 Of The Code Of Ordinances, Specifically The Adoption Of Sections 2-80 Through 2-8, And To Confirm The Appointment Of The Public Safety Commissioner By The Mayor, Providing For Advertising, Further Providing For Severability, And Further Providing For A Repealer And Effective Date Of Ordinance.

Award The Bid For HVAC Improvements At The Natchitoches Events Center  (NEC) (BID NO. 0653)

Award The Bid For HVAC Improvements At The Martin Luther King, Jr., Recreational Community Center (MLK) (BID NO. 0649)

Amend And Reenact Sections 30-18 And 30-42, Both Of Which Are Located In Article Iv Of Section 30 Of The Code Of Ordinances Of The City Of Natchitoches, Entitled “Utilities” Said Amendments Being Made To Implement Changes In New Rates For Sewer Service And Water Use Which New Rate Structure Has Been Proposed In A Electrical And Water Rate Study Prepared By Shuler Consulting Company, Providing For Advertising, Further Providing For Severability, And Further Providing For A Repealer.

RESOLUTIONS:
Execute Change Order No. 1 To The Contract Between The City Of Natchitoches And Dixie Overland Construction, LLC, For The Wastewater Collection System Rehabilitation, Grand Ecore And Mill Street Lift Stations, LDEQ-CWSRF (BID NO. 0646)

Enter Into A Contract With Cunningham Agency, Inc. For The Airport Liability Insurance For The City Of Natchitoches.

Enter Into A Contract With Midwest Employers Casualty Company For The Workers’ Compensation Excess Coverage Policy For The City Of Natchitoches.

Enter Into A Contract With Employers Risk Management Services As The Workers Compensation Third Party Administrator For The City Of Natchitoches.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

The next scheduled City Council meeting will be Jan. 9, 2023.
There will not be a City Council meeting on Monday, Dec. 26.
The City of Natchitoches offices will be closed Thursday, Dec. 22, Friday, Dec. 23 for the Christmas Holidays, and Thursday, Dec. 29 & Friday, Dec. 30 for New Years.