Mayor has opposition to water plant proposal

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Carolyn Roy | News Editor

Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr., had a major disappointment Monday at the City Council meeting when a resolution to hire an engineering firm to study the plan for a new water treatment plant failed by a vote of three to two. Councilmen Eddie Harrington and Dale Nielsen and Councilperson-at-Large Betty Sawyer-Smith voted no to a resolution authorizing the mayor to hire a Houston firm to provide services necessary to seek a grant from the Water Sector program through the La. Division of Administration.

This article published in the Aug. 26, 2021, print edition
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The scope of service by the firm of Carollo Engineers will be to compare the benefits and costs of upgrading the existing plant to replacing it with a new plant at another location. Paul Walker, an engineer for Carollo, said those services would cost about $200,000 for the first phase. While Nielsen and Harrington complained of lack of information and voted against the resolution Monday, their differences may have been resolved.

There will be a special called meeting today, Thursday, at 2 p.m. to discuss the resolution and take another vote.

Harrington said by phone Tuesday that he, Nielsen, Director of Utilities Matt Anderson, Williams and Walker met Aug. 24 to get more details. “I feel better and more informed. The Mayor educated us and gave us more details we didn’t have at the meeting.” Walker said Monday that Carollo will be assisted by three other engineering firms. Victor Winston, a former Natchitoches resident and engineer for one of the firms, EJES Inc., said it would be a blessing to have the opportunity to serve his hometown by bringing water into Natchitoches.

He said his firm would perform the air conditioning, electrical and plumbing. Williams lobbied long and hard to convince the councilmen to come around to his way of thinking with little success. He urged passage of the resolution since the deadline to apply for the grant is Sept. 24. Williams said there are numerous federal grants, including the American Rescue Plan and CARES Act, available to pay for a new plant that he said would enhance economic development and upgrade City water treatment ability. Williams talked of the possibility of moving the present plant, located on City property that formerly was the Archer-Daniels-Midland plant on Mill Street, to further develop that complex where the brewery is located.

He mentioned how it would benefit not only the City but Northwestern State, an idea he had pitched several times to the university. Director of Community Development Randy LaCaze said the City, during Lee Posey’s administration, purchased 90 acres south of Fairgrounds Road that could be considered as the location for a new plant. He said there was enough stimulus money available to build it. LaCaze said there was no question that a new plant would contribute to economic development as well as residential growth. “We’ve got to think differently,” LaCaze said. He believes plants #3 and #4 will be sufficient for the next 10 years but questioned about 20-30 years out. He said federal money available to the City now was the answer. Nielsen was opposed saying he knew nothing of the resolution until he saw it on the agenda.

There have been meetings to discuss rehabilitating #3 and building #4 with an engineering study in progress. “Now there’s a new engineering plan. We were not included,” Nielsen said. He also asked what impact the cost of a new plant would have on consumer rates, going from $20 million for the first plan to $80 million for the new plan. “It’s too much,” Nielsen said. Nielsen said the council had agreed on rehabbing #3 and building #4. “You’re changing course,” he told Williams.

Harrington said he too objected because of the cost of the new plan. He was also concerned what a new, larger plant would have on personnel costs with difficulty in hiring qualified staff. He said the $200,000 would research “…a new plant we don’t need.” Councilman Chris Petite supported the Mayor as did Rosemary Eli. Petite said he had heard many people talk about the need for improved water since many were without water during the storm last winter. In May, the mayor held a meeting to discuss his plans for spending the first installment of the American Rescue Plan funds.

Among his plan then was spending $1 million for engineering for the addition of a fourth water treatment plant. It is estimated that it will cost $17.3 million to build a new #4 and rehab #3. At that meeting, he said the two plants would increase capacity to 12 million gallons per day. That study is nearly complete according to one of the councilmen. Williams said the approaching deadline was the reason for the haste in putting the item on the agenda without consulting the councilmen. He said details of the grant were not released until Aug. 2.

Another argument he had for hiring the engineers was that the work they would do, a preliminary engineer report, (PRE), would be necessary for future work or grants. Anderson said the water treatment plant operates at 100 percent several times a year. Last year when parts of the City were out of water for six days during the snow storm, recovery time would have been much less with more capacity.