Low public attendance hampers final water/power rate town hall

Greg Ball shows a sample of water bottled at his house for a town hall meeting addressing water and electric utility rates Sept. 28. Nathan Wilson

Nathan Wilson
The final town hall meeting to discuss the City of Natchitoches’ plan to raise water and electric utility rates began at 6:30 p.m. with only representatives of the municipal government in attendance. Without public input, the prepared presentation was delayed in favor of a discussion of implementation strategies by leaders from the city’s finance, police, utility and other departments.
City officials discussed the possibility of mitigating the impact of electric rate increases on residents by phasing in additional charges. “You’ve got to figure out what you need, and how soon do you need it,” said Utility Director Matt Anderson of the idea. Under this proposal, rate payers would see their KWH charge increase in steps over the course of months or years rather than as a single increase. The total rate increase most frequently discussed was 1.5 cents per KWH of electricity consumption.

A second faction expressed concerns that stretching out the process of raising the electricity consumption charge would hamper the city’s ability to meet its goals. One justification for raising the electric utility rates is to fund pay increases for city employees to relieve challenges with recruitment and retention, particularly among police and fire safety officers. Representatives of the city police force expressed frustration over the prospect of enduring additional months of understaffing issues tied to uncompetitive compensation and heavy workloads. Finance Director Clarissa Brown-Smith expressed concern that implementing the rate increases too quickly risked alienating residents, while staged rate increases would be challenging to communicate. “If we break it down into a longer time span, it just slows down all communication,” she said.
City water customer Greg Ball arrived holding a water bottle containing murky, tinted water and requested an explanation of how the city planned to address water quality issues. He stated that he had complained about the issue multiple times to the city without gaining traction.
Anderson explained the lines that carry water to many houses in and around Natchitoches are aging and built to older design standards such as with cast iron or galvanized pipes and dead end lines. He suggested the coloration of the water may result from manganese present in Sibley Lake, but assured Ball the water quality should comply with state water quality standards despite the turbidity.
Ball further expressed frustration about the way funding had been diverted away from the city’s water utility funds for the construction of Parc Natchitoches. Purchasing Director Edd Lee clarified that the existing water service funds weren’t depleted to construct the park, but instead the tax collections previously remitted to the water fund were rededicated to pay bonds associated with the park’s construction.
Town hall organizers began their prepared presentation as other residents arrived. Consulting engineer Rick Nowlin provided insight into why municipalities assess electric and water distribution rates in excess of the cost of production, stating that the fees pay for infrastructure maintenance costs and typically provide additional funding for other city functions. As a consultant for the city of Natchitoches, he provided comparable water and electric rates for other cities in Louisiana and suggested the increased rates would approximate the average charged by municipalities across the state.
Brown-Smith presented data showing average compensation levels for municipal employees in comparably sized Louisiana cities. She stated the goal is to achieve relative parity with neighboring cities in Louisiana that compete with Natchitoches for skilled employees.
Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr. stated the goal behind raising electric utility rates was to ease challenges the city has in hiring qualified staff. He tied the proposed pay increases for city employees to maintaining the quality of city services and emphasized the need to sufficiently address public safety needs. “This whole thing is just inflation and it affects everybody and it affects our employees too. We’re trying to keep and attract folks,” he said before introducing the city’s fire department and police chiefs.
Fire Chief John Wynn spoke about the approaching need to replace retiring Fire Department employees with decades of experience while competing with professional fire departments in cities like Alexandria and Pineville.

A reader submitted these photos after seeing the photo of Greg Ball and his water in our print edition.

Police Chief Nikeo Collins stated his department faces similar pressures recruiting and retaining officers while competing against other departments, sheriff’s offices and the state police. He noted Natchitoches police officers are provided with valuable training that officers then take with them when they leave for better paying departments.He added that additional recruitment and retention pressures are being placed on the police department because of high levels of workplace stress resulting from increasing crime rates and staffing shortages nationwide.
The town hall succeeded in convincing at least one attendee not employed by the city. Community Member Carl Sias expressed his appreciation for the city’s police, firefighters and other employees and stated he felt the rate increases were justified by the circumstances. “I don’t see anything wrong with it,” he said. “The cost of living has gone up.”
The amount and timeline of water and electric rate increases are still unsettled and will be determined in a future vote by the city council.