Nathan Wilson | Reporter
Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr. outlined five priority outcomes aimed at addressing crime, improving quality of life and positioning Natchitoches for future growth in his Feb. 9 town hall meeting.
Three priorities, reducing poverty, lowering violent crime and increasing broadband access included metrics with which to evaluate success. His other goals included clear examples of projects intended to benefit the city of Natchitoches.
First, Williams listed recent development projects that would create jobs within the city including Community Care Center, River City Commons and the expansion at Alliance. Finishing his recap of the city’s accomplishments, Williams summed up with, “This is what it’s about, it’s about jobs.”
He then led into his business development plan along Texas Street. by highlighting a proposed roundabout. Replacing the existing intersection, along with grants to businesses along Texas and Washington Street for projects like façade improvements, would revitalize one of the city’s economic corridors. “I really love this idea of incentivizing your own” he added.
Moving into his first priority, Williams outlined ideas for addressing poverty within the city. Williams described providing job training for the city’s youth and rental assistance to struggling residents. Beyond the current strategy of partnering with existing non-profits, he announced the city was exploring the possibility of creating its own non-profit organization to better realize its goals. In providing assistance to impoverished residents within the city, Williams pointed out his administration could not enact every proposed solution, but alleviating strain on residents in one area would enable them to better address their other needs.
When a community member asked what local non-profits currently provide job-training opportunities, Williams mentioned the Ben D. Johnson Educational Center. He then asked attendees for other examples, with a resident pointing toward Cane River Film Festival which provides experience and training for aspiring film-makers.
Williams addressed his next priority by asking attendees to estimate how many homicides the city experienced in 2021. After a resident guessed more than 20, Williams corrected her with six, but remarked that only one had resulted in an arrest. He then listed suggestions that he had previously gathered from residents, and opened the floor to suggestions. In recommending that the city solicit tips from the community, Larry Paige noted that although he wasn’t a resident, “crime doesn’t read the city limit sign.” Others suggested ankle bracelets for offenders or a gun buy back program. Harold Bayonne mentioned the need to control the proliferation of guns, “Certain times of night or morning, I’m not against stop and frisk.”
In addressing these concerns, Williams pointed to a violent crime task force that his administration created to address the issue, and that it is already working with Crime Stoppers, for which the city funds much of the cost. He noted that while Crime Stoppers is advertised aggressively online, many residents still had not heard of the program and they are seeking alternatives to reach a broader audience.
Williams lamented that several strategies looked good on paper, but didn’t work well in practice. Community service, a tool for addressing non-violent crime without jail sentences, had been discontinued during the pandemic, while the Ware Youth Center faced a shortage of space that caused it to choose only the most serious young offenders. Shotspotter, a technological solution for identifying and locating the source of gunshots, appears prohibitively expensive at a cost of roughly $50,000 per square mile. His answer to the topic of police pay was that using grants and other non-recurring funding sources to increase officer pay could lead to retention problems or lay-offs later on.
With the conversation turning to budgetary items, Williams introduced plans to address the city’s need for upgrades to its water system. The first plan, refurbishing the existing facilities, would modestly increase capacity at a total cost of $32 million, while his preferred plan is to build an entirely new plant. At a cost of $52 million, a new treatment facility would be considerably more expensive, but provide additional capacity.
When residents pointed to the poor quality of water; Williams blamed old pipes, “The water quality is actually good… we’ve got old pipes under the ground.” He indicated that pipe replacement was ongoing, but that the cost raised the prospect of the process taking decades. Elvin Shields used the budget focus as an opportunity to suggest better fleet management, “We got one ditch to be dug and you see five city brand new pickups… and they don’t even have a shovel in the back. Another guy comes to bring the shovel.”
As a solution to funding constraints, Williams proposed partnering with Sustainability Partners to build a new treatment plant while maintaining the city’s debt at current levels. Following concerns about price increases, he mentioned that a private provider would be contractually restrained from raising rates unchecked. He also emphasized that a private company would carry the costs of maintenance.
Williams then provided information about the cost of water. While other municipalities pay upwards of $20 for 2,000 gallons, the rate in Natchitoches trails behind at only $9, a consequence of past administrations resisting unpopular rate increases. During the discourse, a citizen expressed concern about a study suggesting the city would run out of capacity in two years if no action was taken, to which he pointed out that adding another major consumer like Pilgrims could move that timeline forward.
As the town hall wore on, Williams curtailed addressing his last two priorities, reducing blight and increasing broadband access. Before closing the meeting, he expressed “I love the engagement” and asked attendees to feel free to ask him questions after the meeting.
Nathan Wilson | Reporter