Proposal includes five rural systems
DARROW — The Rev. Melvin Green, 85, said he used to cut grass in the ditches and strips of grass along La. 22 in his neighborhood in the absence of any appreciable government help — a task he performed for years.
Green and his wife, Mary Lee, 78, say they rarely see parish or any other government workers around their house at the corner of Smith Road and La. 22 in Darrow, a rural pocket of Ascension Parish along the Mississippi River’s east bank.
So word the parish government is considering a $12.50-per-month rate increase for their parish sewer service is unwelcome news to the Greens.
“I don’t see them do anything here. They don’t do nothing,” Mary Green said.
She said she and her husband, like other residents in this area and in nearby Hillaryville, live off a fixed income with Social Security and can’t afford the increase.
The Parish Council, meeting as Ascension Consolidated Utilities District No. 2, is expected to consider the proposed increase Thursday, boosting rates from $30 to $42.50 per month, said O’Neil Parenton Jr., parish attorney.
If approved, the increase would affect 483 customers in four areas immediately, Hope Villa and Country Ridge in the northern Ascension and Hillaryville and Darrow along the river, according to a parish breakdown.
Under a separate agreement, parish government operates a private system for another 125 customers in the Astroland subdivision, which is northeast of Hillaryville, off La. 22. Lester Kenyon, parish government spokesman, said the proposed increase would not affect them until the Astroland customers are pulled into a revamped parish-owned system planned — work to be done with a $5.2 million Community Development Block Grant.
The grant would tie Darrow, Hillaryville and Astroland into one unified system. Kenyon said plans are due in December and construction is expected to start next year.
The Darrow area would be hit especially hard if the sewer increase is improved. The Parish Council, meeting in Donaldsonville as ACUD No. 2 on Sept. 5, approved a separate 10 percent increase for water in the area.
The increase passes on higher costs from a private provider, Baton Rouge Water Co., which began supplying water to a Darrow-area water district this summer after long-standing supply problems with the St. James Parish water system, the former provider.
The $4.39 increase, which takes effect immediately, will boost the average customer’s rate from $43.90 to $48.29 per month, parish officials said.
Ascension Parish officials have focused attention in recent years on creating a regional parish sewer system, looking first at populated, high-growth areas in the Prairieville area currently served by private sewer companies.
But, in isolated pockets, parish government has for several years run public sewer treatment facilities built with grants or once private systems the parish has had to take over.
The parish’s auditors also warned the Parish Council for the past several years to raise rates as the sewer systems continually lost money. The council has resisted hiking rates even as the red ink has flowed, tapping the general fund budget to cover some expenses.
Since 2009, the four parish-owned systems, excluding Astroland, have not collected enough user fees to cover annual operations, totaling a combined $313,612 in losses. When depreciation on equipment is factored in — an accounting method ensuring money is available when expensive equipment breaks — the combined losses between 2009 and 2012 rise to nearly $1.5 million, according to an accounting summaries.
Parish government officials had tentatively asked for as much as $45 per month, up from $30, before the Council Utilities Committee on Aug. 26.
But Parish President Tommy Martinez, who grew up in Darrow, told the committee the parish would take what it could get, saying an unrealistic $125 per month per customer would be needed to break even.
Councilman Travis Turner represents the Darrow and Hillaryville areas and proposed the $12.50 increase recommended by the Utilities Committee last month. He said they tried to make sure the increase was as modest as possible “but it did have to go up,” he said.
User fees are expected to generate $173,520 this year. The committee’s proposed $12.50-per-month increase, if approved Thursday, would generate an extra $61,455 annually, estimates show. In 2013, the parish expects to lose $164,301 on operating expenses before depreciation is factored in and $454,301 with it.
Some in the Hillaryville area said they would take the increase in stride, especially since the parish has been losing money on sewer and costs for most things are going up anyway.
“You got to deal with it, either way,” said Herman Jenkins, 63, who is retired and lives on Jenkins Road.
In each case, with water rates on Sept. 5 and in the committee meeting on sewer rates last month, council members such as Turner have had concerns about boosting rates too quickly. A push by Councilman Todd Lambert to boost water rates by 15 percent, instead of 10 percent, to provide cushion for big expenses failed Sept. 5, 3 to 4.
The 10 percent water rate increase that the council, meeting as ACUD No. 2, eventually approved was accompanied with an agreement to review rates in six months. Lambert opposed the measure.
In a parish that for years has largely been served by private providers regulated by the Louisiana Public Service Commission, the council may face more rate decisions as the parish government tackles putting together a regional sewer.
Council Chairman Chris Loar pointed out that the existing parish sewer systems don’t have enough customers to spread out the cost, which is why the parish is focusing on adding customers first in the heavily populated La. 73 and La. 42 corridors.
Loar, whose council district includes Hope Villa, agreed the council will face future tough calls on what to charge customers, who are also voters.
“It’s a foreshadowing of things to come, no question. It is never going to be easy to raise rates, but it’s unfortunate that’s some of what it takes,” he said.