City Council will use Rescue Plan Act funds to assist residents with utility costs

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Nathan Wilson | Reporter
The City Council met Monday, May 23 to vote unanimously in favor of four ordinances, four resolutions and a proclamation. They also introduced two ordinances and received a positive financial report.
Among the motions passed or introduced, Ordinances 34, 35 and 36 and Resolutions 44, 45 and 46 warranted discussion among members of the council, city administration or community members based on their expected impact.

This article published in the May 26, 2022, print edition

The introduction of Ordinance 36 generated discussion between members of the Council and city administration. It designates $250,000 in funding the city received from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) to assist in stabilizing qualifying households. The funds will be awarded to households as relief towards their utility charges, though some initial restrictions on how ARPA funds can be used have since been relaxed. Individual awards will range from $100 to $300 and will be based on household size and income. Households with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level will qualify, so a household of three will qualify with an annual income of less than $46,060, while a household of five will qualify with income of less than $64,940.
Finance Director Clarissa Brown-Smith noted recipients would need to apply for the relief funds and described the city’s effort to distribute utility assistance to those in greatest need. “We are developing a scale to what amount each family would be eligible for based on the poverty guideline standards,” she said.
Councilman Dale Nielsen pointed out the city’s records of delinquent accounts could serve as a starting point to identify utility customers in need of help. “We also in-house probably have a list that if we were proactive could reach out,” he said.
Councilman Eddie Harrington sought clarification that the city would not profit from the funds. City Attorney Alex Washington responded that the program would offset the cost of electricity delivered to city residents. “Our intent is not to financially gain, but to make sure we help the community,” he said. The ordinance passed unanimously.
Ordinance 35 prompted concern from a member of the community when it introduced a $935,000 bond to refurbish sewer lift stations on Mill Street and Grand Ecore Road. “These lift stations are probably nearing 40 years old, so they need some rehab work: New pumps, new controls, new rail systems, new lining of the wet well,” said Director of Utilities Matt Anderson.
Anderson explained the city will receive $312,000 in loan forgiveness for the lift station rehabilitation and Washington added the remainder will be financed at a very favorable 0.95% interest rate through the La. Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The ordinance will be voted on during the next meeting.
The bond issuance prompted a concern from resident Debra Thompson, “Are we putting out a bond to raise taxes?” she asked. Washington explained the loan would be paid from existing city revenues.
Ordinance 34 authorized the mayor to enter into a one-year memorandum of understanding with the Natchitoches Economic Development Alliance (NEDA). With Laura Lyles of the Natchitoches Area Chamber of Commerce taking the lead, the collaboration will promote business development within the City of Natchitoches and the parish. “Economic development does not happen in a vacuum,” said Lyles. “The NEDA board decided to invest in an economic development strategic plan.” The motion passed unanimously.
Resolution 44 offers to address water quality issues for part of West Natchitoches by authorizing the mayor to advertise and accept bids to replace a section of the city’s water main in Breda Town. “This is another phase of water main replacement, trying to get rid of the cast iron and galvanized water mains in the city of Natchitoches,” said Anderson. “We’re trying to start in some of the worst areas. The places we have the most complaints for dirty water. The places we have the most leaks that we’re going back time and time again.” He explained the gradual pace of improvements. “Several years ago we tried to budget $500,000 per year in water main replacement, but with recent cost increase in labor and material, this is probably going to be around $700,000,” he said. “It doesn’t go as far as you think it would when you’re talking about water main replacement.” The resolution passed unanimously.
Resolution 45 sought to authorize a $6,000 change order for purchase of a forklift from Scott Equipment. The original price of $118,000 was increased to $122,000 because of surcharge applied by the vendor to reflect increased material costs experienced by the manufacturer. Director of Purchasing Edd Lee described paying a higher price for the forklift as necessary because of rising material and labor costs. “We need the piece of equipment. This has been awarded for almost a year now, and it’s still months away from getting it, and we certainly don’t need to start over and then we’re going to pay a larger cost anyway,” he said.
Resolution 46 passed unanimously authorizing the city to be represented by Baron & Budd regarding the city’s historical use of firefighting foam products containing PFAS and PFOS chemicals. The chemicals were used in firefighting foam deployed in the vicinity of the Natchitoches Regional Airport and are associated with persistent environmental contamination and negative health effects in humans. Washington explained the law firm would bear the expense of litigation if it found a claim was warranted. “Even if there’s a recovery, the city won’t pay. The payment will come from the proceeds of the suit or claim,” he said. In the event the city is awarded damages, Baron and Budd would be awarded 25% of the recovery.
Ordinance 31 was added to the agenda with unanimous approval. It amended the budget to reflect the city’s actual revenues and expenditures.“ Brown-Smith explained the need. “At the end of each year we go back and see how close we are to what we budgeted for that year, so we try to stay within a five percent variance on expenses and on revenues. If we are not within that amount we go in and we make an adjustment and move some of our budgeted dollars around, make sure we’re covering our expenses.” she said. It passed unanimously.
Ordinance 26 passed unanimously to adopt the city’s budget for the fiscal year starting June 1 and ending May 31, 2023. The budget included $19,369,505 in the city’s general fund, $40,842,500 in the city’s proprietary fund used for utilities and $25,706,951 in the special and capital project Fund.
Ordinance 32 passed unanimously to authorize the mayor to amend a leasing agreement between the city and New Cingular Wireless PCS to provide additional space for installation of a generator near one of the city’s water towers. ,
Ordinance 33 passed unanimously to rezone a house at 403 Jefferson St. The house will remain zoned R1 residential but will include a special exception to operate short-term rentals of one of the three units in the property.
Resolution 47 passed unanimously to authorize a change order from $1,177,046.23 to $1,307,416.52 for Williams Equipment Services, LLC. The equipment is being used for phase one rehabilitation on Amulet Street.
Proclamation 43 passed unanimously to declare May 31 as Mental Health Awareness day. Natchitoches residents are encouraged to wear kelly green on Tuesday, May 31 and are invited to attend a Mental Health symposium at 6 p.m. at the Natchitoches Events Center.
Brown-Smith delivered the city’s financial report indicating $10.4 million in tax collections year-to-date. She noted upward tax collections trends and highlighted TIF taxes on lodging increased nearly 100% over the previous five years. “We’re trending upwards. I know I keep saying the same thing, but I like saying up when you’re talking about money revenues,” she said.
The Council acknowledged recipients of the Mayor’s award: Phillip Evans III, Abigail Bevill, Shemaria Harris and Demarion Sowell from NCHS, Anthony Efferson from NPTCC and Anna Kate Jackson from St. Mary’s School.
The Council also acknowledged recipients of the Mayor’s Athletic Award: Catherine Stokes and Caylin Demars from NCHS and Abigail Romian and Graeme Fidelak from St. Mary’s.
The Mayor also reminded residents that City of Natchitoches offices will be closed for Memorial Day Monday, May 30 and announced the next City Council meeting on Monday, June 13.