Harahan council votes to increase sewerage fee

After months of false starts and discussion, Harahan officials finally raised the city’s sewer rates Thursday, but it’s not clear whether the new fees will cover all the infrastructure improvements the city needs to make.

The Harahan City Council unanimously approved a 43 percent increase to the city’s minimum residential sewer rate and a 71 percent increase to the minimum fee for non-residential properties. In real dollars, the monthly minimum will go from $5.25 to $7.50 and $9 respectively.

However, the city’s actual sewer rates are more than doubling for commercial and residential customers who use more than the minimum. Sewer usage is calculated based on 85 percent of the water usage.

It is Harahan’s first sewer rate increase in more than a decade and comes as the city has seen the operational deficit at the plant balloon to more than $200,000 annually. Mayor Provino Mosca, who has been laying the groundwork for the increase for months, said it was a simple decision.

“We want everyone to have the opportunity to flush the toilet without any repercussions,” Mosca said.

Harahan’s wastewater treatment plant has been a problem for years as it’s been hit with federal and state citations for operational problems. Not only is the city’s main treatment plant old and outdated, like many municipalities in the region, Harahan also has crumbling underground pipes and antiquated sewer lift stations.

Although the city has two dedicated property taxes for sewerages, those taxes are only about 2.5 mills. Councilwoman Cindy Murray noted that it costs about $629,000 to run the plant, and because of the deficit, the city has to siphon money from other departments to keep the plant afloat.

“Where does the money come from? It comes from other places in general government,” Murray said. “It looks like either we’re going to have to do something with our fees or we’re not going to be able to flush our toilets.”

However, Murray and Councilwoman Dana Huete initially asked the council to delay voting on the measure for one more month until they could verify whether the fee increases would cover operational costs and the repayment of a $4 million loan the city is seeking from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Mosca says he has assurances the city can get the money for improvements at the facility if it can show it has a way to repay the money.

However, several other board members and Mosca said they didn’t need more time because even if the proposed increases weren’t adequate, they weren’t willing to go any higher at this time. Mosca said he’s confident the city can find a way to make up any shortfall. In addition, under the new guidelines, city officials can increase the sewer rates by as much as 5 percent annually if necessary.

Despite hand-wringing by Mosca over residents’ reaction to the plan, and Councilman Eric Chatelain’s complaints that officials were getting “chopped up” over the issue, reaction to the news on Thursday was fairly muted. Several residents said they understood the city’s predicament, although they wondered why officials didn’t consider eliminating the fee for the city’s recycling program to offset the new fee. Another man noted that the rate increase is much larger than the salary increases most residents get from their employers, even though the dollar amount is small.

Judy Johnson chastised city officials for waiting so long to raise the fees and then hitting residents with a large increase that might not even solve the problem. She also criticized the annual increases that are now linked to the new rates.

“You’re going to be more than doubling what we have now, plus,” Johnson, who warned residents to be cautious of the change, said. “You don’t have any problem raising the sewer rates, but you don’t know what the new rate will be.”

The new sewer rates will go into effect in July. Harahan residents receive their sewer bills every other month. City officials initially discussed adding an annual “user fee” to sewer customers but decided to go with the monthly increase to space the charges out, Mosca noted.