Letter to the Editor
“I love Natchitoches!” is a familiar saying to many Natchitoches residents. Former Mayor Joe Sampite’ would travel with the now iconic “I Heart Natchitoches” stickers and place one on just about any flat surface he came into contact with. Though we haven’t used stickers as a symbolic gesture, I can firmly say that both my administration and this City Council truly love Natchitoches.
My administration has shown a deep love and devotion for the great City of Natchitoches in many ways over a relatively short period of time. We have shown our love for this youth-driven city by being an eager sponsor of our local Boys and Girls Club. We have shown our love for this safe haven of a city by making our first allocation of American Rescue Plan funds to the Natchitoches Police Department (NPD). This allocation of $500,000 for anti-crime technology and systems will ensure our very own NPD has the top-of-the-line equipment they need to continue in their tireless efforts to protect and serve our great city. We have shown our love for our spectacular city by, not only seeking, but successfully securing over $20 million in grant funding. The grant wins include $17.2 million for the creation of sidewalks and additional lighting on Texas Street as well as the implementation of the Natchitoches Bike and Pedestrian Plan throughout the city, a combined $1.6 million for HVAC improvements at the Natchitoches Events Center and MLK Recreation Center respectively, $480,000 for renovations to the Keyser lift station, and $400,000 for enhancements to the Frederick M. Richardson Park on Lake Street. These are only the grants we have been awarded so far! We are yet aggressively seeking grant funding for our thriving city. Additionally, we have established the city’s first Crime Stoppers program and taken a more proactive anti-litter stance. Our love for Natchitoches is indeed apparent.
Wholeheartedly, I agree with the author who composed this powerful saying, “Love is not just a feeling, it is commitment and above all a sacrifice.” Love and sacrifice are inextricably bound. You simply cannot have one without the other. While we all make numerous, daily sacrifices for our great city, I want to illuminate a major need of our city that we will all need to work together to fulfil. It is no secret that the city of Natchitoches has an immediate need for improvements to the water treatment facility on Rapides Drive. Consider the following facts. Currently, our water treatment complex is composed of three aging plants. Plant #1 was constructed in 1960 (62 years ago). Plant #2 was constructed in 1971 (51 years ago). Plant #3 was built in 1994 (28 years ago). Though demand for Natchitoches water has significantly increased since 1994, we have not significantly increased our capacity to produce clean, drinkable water. Utility Department Head, Matt Anderson, noted at a sparsely-attended town hall:
Alliance Compressors, built around 1999, uses on average 5.5 million gallons of water per month. Pilgrim’s Pride now uses anywhere from 600,000 to 800,000 gallons of water every day. The Village of Clarence is now a full-time customer that consumes about 1.5 million gallons of water per month. The Village of Hagewood uses about 250,000 gallons of water per month. We have seen the city limits extended and several large subdivisions have been built in the city including Water Works District 1. Also, in the past 30 years we have witnessed the I-49 corridor grow from just a couple hotels and restaurants to 7 hotels, 10 restaurants, 5 gas stations, and a newly constructed auto mall. The Water Plant runs at full capacity several times during the year meaning we are only producing enough water to meet demand. We have absolutely no room for error.
Not only do we need capacity to meet our current demand, but we need added capacity for redundancy. This will allow us to take one treatment train off-line to better maintain it and make repairs to equipment and other infrastructure inside the plant, which we are unable to do now. Additional capacity is required for future growth of not only residential customers but commercial and industrial customers as well. It would be a sad day in Natchitoches if we have to inform a corporation that may be looking here to expand its operations, potentially creating hundreds of jobs in our city, that we cannot supply the water they need.
Matt is not alone in his assessment of our current water plight. Both independent engineers and Louisiana water inspectors firmly believe we must rehabilitate Plant #3 and construct a 4th water treatment facility to adequately address the city’s long-term water needs. To further illuminate the urgency of this matter, the Louisiana Department of Health has given the city a June 2023 deadline to address our deteriorating water infrastructure. Doing so, of course, will be an expensive undertaking—perhaps the most expensive project in the city’s long history. I commissioned, with City Council approval, a Preliminary Engineering Report (PER) in 2021. The PER indicates a total project cost of approximately $20 million. As demonstrated by my administration’s current slate of grant wins, I am adamant about aggressively securing state and federal dollars that will enable us to address the varied needs of our great city. To this end we have submitted an application to Louisiana’s Water Sector Program. If we are successful in our grant proposal, this effort will garner the city $5 million towards our city’s water treatment needs. In addition to this funding from the state, we are positioned to seek another $5 million from the Economic Development Administration to improve our water infrastructure. Furthermore, I have earmarked $1.25 million from American Rescue Plan dollars as a potential match for future awards of grant funding.
Even if we are successful in our pursuit of available grant money at the state and federal levels, we will still be millions of dollars short in terms of financing this vital project which will ensure an adequate supply of healthy water for our current and future needs. Simply put, it is unrealistic to think that either Baton Rouge or Washington D.C. will solve all of our problems. The onus is upon us—Natchitoches residents—to shoulder the burden of meeting this and other critical needs facing our city. Water treatment plant failure is not theoretical. Recent events in Jackson, Mississippi, for example, have made it extremely apparent that eventually a water treatment system can and will fail if not given proper attention, funding, and rehabilitation. Today, it is Jackson, Mississippi. Tomorrow, it may be another American city with aging infrastructure. We must sacrifice today to make sure Natchitoches is NEVER in such a predicament.
After much dialogue and critical thinking over the past two years, it is apparent that a relatively small increase in our utility rates is unavoidable in making this and other necessary projects a reality. Both the water rate study and the electric rate study executed by Shuler Consulting and Delta Consulting, Inc. respectively, indicate a need to adjust the city’s utility rates to better meet the growing needs of Natchitoches residents. While some may use the terms pastor or politician, I prefer the label of public servant. I sincerely understand the hardship people are facing during these times of record inflation. My family and I are also affected by higher costs of consumer goods and the rising rates of various industries. Let me be clear, the recently high electricity bills are not the result of a rate increase imposed by the mayor and City Council. In reality, the city boasts some of the lowest base utility rates in the state. For example, the city’s base Kilowatt per Hour (KWH) rate has only increased $0.03 over the last 30 years. Again, please note that the price of electricity provided to residents from the city of Natchitoches is well below the price charged by other companies in the area. Although we buy our power from CLECO, we actually sell that same power at a lower rate to city of Natchitoches customers than CLECO sells to their own customers.
The inflated bills, which are affecting people all over this nation, are connected to the national increase in the price of natural gas and coal. These non-renewable resources are the primary fuel sources for generating electricity. When prices of these valuable resources are high, consumers will experience high electricity bills. The graph below shows a rise in the price of natural gas that has not occurred since 2008. This rise in price has had a significant impact on the price of electricity for consumers.
The failure to increase rates or proactively save money as a city to ensure the availability of funding for projects of this importance and magnitude is an unfortunate misstep of the past. Although times are hard and raising rates is unpopular, it simply must be done. There are a few standout reasons that we cannot continue, metaphorically speaking, to kick the can down the road insofar as our water treatment needs are concerned. As previously stated, water treatment failure related to deferred maintenance is a real possibility. Our fellow Americans in Jackson, Mississippi are experiencing a dire water crisis as a result of the many years of neglect of their water treatment facilities. We cannot be guilty of neglecting our critical infrastructure here in the city of Natchitoches.
Additionally, we need to act now based on the stipulations of the aforementioned water sector program. If we are awarded the $5 million in grant funding that we have applied for, which I believe is a strong possibility, for our water treatment project, the city must have—within 60 days—a plan in place to finance the remainder of the project. Failure to have secured funding in place would result in our forfeiture of these vital dollars. Simply put, the funds will be awarded to another municipality with aging water infrastructure that has the available funds required to complete their project.
Yet another reason we should not wait to act is that city employees—people who maintain city property, protect and serve, and restore power during an outage just to name a few responsibilities—have witnessed the devastating effect of inflation as well. Historically, the city has been able to provide 2% cost of living increases to employees. However, 8% inflation has overshadowed this annual cost of living increase. A recent salary study conducted by the JER HR Group has made it apparent that the city should address employee compensation in a meaningful way. A more competitive salary scale will allow the city to attract and retain organizational talent, including but not limited to, public safety personnel.
Lastly, the impact inflation has had on the city’s budget is yet another reason we should not procrastinate in generating more revenue. Utility Director, Matt Anderson shared the extreme increase in chemical costs over time at the Amulet Street Town Hall.
This year 2023 budget we are on track to spend $1.7 million a 95% increase from 2017.
The city is spending drastically more on the same quantity of essential chemicals, and we have been forced to absorb the additional costs. As a consequence, fewer streets will be improved, fewer cast iron pipes will be replaced (a necessary activity to address the “brown” water issue), and fewer quality of life projects will be pursued.
Make no mistake—neither the city council nor I take important decisions that impact both your and the city’s bottom line lightly. For this reason, I have commissioned three informative studies related to water rates, electric rates, and compensation. I have held three town halls in different areas of the city. I understand the political implications of a rate increase to pay for water treatment expansion and other necessities of the city. Without a doubt, I would pursue another path in a New York minute, but we simply do not have other viable options at this time. And yes, if different decisions were made prior to my arrival to City Hall we could be in a much more advantageous position. Truth be told, an increase in rates is long overdue, but the negative attention for doing so has made it an unpopular decision that has not been pursued for many, many years. My father, sometimes uses the phrase that’s water under the bridge. Unfortunately, we do not have the power to alter past decisions to better our present outcome. We do, however, have the power to impact the future of our beloved city in a substantially positive way.
Any Natchitoches resident or water customer is encouraged to send comments, questions, or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.