By Carolyn Roy, Carolyn@natchitochestimes.com
Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr. knows there are problems in the city but he also knows they can be solved with the help and determination of its citizens. During an approximately 30-minute “State of the City Address” Monday on the City’s social media channel, he reiterated that Natchitoches is a wonderful place to live and that is reflected in the character of its residents. He says he “hit the ground running and has been running ever since” after his election on Aug. 15 last year as the first African American mayor in the city’s history. It was only a few short days later that the worst hurricane to hit Louisiana since 1856 knocked the city completely off of its electrical grid and devastated some neighborhoods. “Hurricane Laura definitely left its mark but the people pulled together…we’re just as dedicated now as we were then.”
The Mayor described how he and his wife, Tiffany, pulled on their rubber boots to meet with utility department employees to assess the damage. His home was without power for eight days. Normalcy began to return, albeit slowly, but it was the people of Natchitoches helping each other that made the difference. He stressed throughout the address that he advocates for transparency in his administration and plans to keep the public informed through continuing advancement of technology. While COVID-19 and quarantining made it difficult to execute, he conducted virtual adversity and inclusion training for City employees and an economic development seminar.
He has reactivated Keep Natchitoches Beautiful, appointed a new Mayor’s Health and Fitness Committee as well as a new economic development board. He has expanded the use of technology at City Council meetings.
Williams said he is “up to speed” on economic matters and the City has refinanced a series of utility bonds that will mature in 2031, five years earlier than the original maturity date. That will affect a $300,000 cash flow in the general fund. He also addressed the reserve balance fund that has declined from $50 million five years ago to $13 million today.
He pledged to rebuild the reserves, budget for major projects, address existing deficits and balance the budget. Williams did acknowledge that one reason for the declining reserve balance is that some money was used for street programs when residents voted in 2016 to rededicate a tax for street projects and Parc Natchitoches. A looming problem is a decision about the water treatment plant.
To rehabilitate the existing #3 plant will cost $4 million; to add another plant will cost $13 million. Adding to that problem is an antiquated system of iron water pipes that should be replaced at a cost of “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” He spoke about the philosophy of “go big or go home” in addressing certain projects such a bike lanes. He believes some projects should be tried on a temporary basis such as one street with a bike lane to see if it will work.
He realizes that reducing crime will come on a multi-faceted basis. He urged everyone to get together to stop the senseless violence that has invaded the city. He says many changes are forthcoming after conferences with local law enforcement agencies. “Our city is safe but we must make it safer,” he said. “Even one murder is too many.” He recognized the efforts of law enforcement and said it must have the support of its citizens. He said they are heroes who need the best training available and support of residents. “They are heroes.”
He said he is also grateful for every dedicated City employee. “Your commitment is not forgotten.”
Many of the city’s problems are a direct result of poverty which affects about 44 percent of the residents. Sabine State Bank and the City will host a first time home buyers seminar March 13. He hopes to expand opportunities for small businesses. One such program is a one-year rent subsidy for existing small business and a façade grant of $6,000, also for existing small businesses. An economic developer from Texas, Mike Ferdinand, has been named the Natchitoches Community Alliance Executive Director. He is relocating to Natchitoches and will start work at the end of February.
There are ongoing discussions about how to address road maintenance and there will be updates on the Church Street Bridge.
Williams wants to look for the lowest cost possible to address these projects. He lists four main problems as heinous murders, litter, race relations and recycling. He knows there is room for improvement but acknowledges that every generation makes progress in race relations.
Part of the solution to the problems is individual effort of all the citizens and an effort to rebuild blighted areas. “Our problems will be difficult to solve but not impossible,” Williams said. “We can develop the solutions to problems that plague our dear city.”