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|Sewer district No. 5 mulls rate increases|
West Ouachita Sewer District No. 5 officials are involved in a study to determine how much the district needs to raise sewer rates to continue operations and tackle future projects.
It is expected consumers will be dealt a $5 rate increase in the near future while another rate increase could be forthcoming. Residents served by the sewer district currently pay $15 per month for sewer service.
The sewer district serves roughly 8,300 people, but the district's service impacts about 26,000 people in western Ouachita Parish.
Sewer district manager Terry Cox said rates were last increased in 1997 from $10 to the current $15 rate.
Lazenby & Associates, a civil engineering firm in West Monroe, is working with the sewer district and Louisiana Rural Water Association on a rate increase study. "We'll probably have to go up another $5 just for the collection system itself because it hasn't gone up in 10 years," said Jerry Lazenby, owner of Lazenby & Associates.
"Maintenance cost is increasing and labor cost is increasing, so just to cover that type of stuff and do a few improvements, we'll probably have to go up $5 a customer," Lazenby said.
Louisiana Rural Water Association has a formula to determine how much sewer systems should charge based on the population it serves and other factors.
"That formula is based on how big we are, what we spend, deferred maintenance and increase in cost, those sorts of things," Cox said. "So they are helping us come up with this (rate increase) so we're not just snatching $5 out of the air. $5 might not even be enough once we do the study."
There are several projects the sewer district plans to tackle in the next few years. Louisiana Rural Water Association includes improvement projects for sewer systems in devising its rate increase formula.
"We've got one project that we've got to do next year and that's a $1 million project to replace a force main," Cox said. "That would be an environmental disaster if it blows out."
The sewer district also is involved in a project along with the Ouachita Parish Police Jury to add roughly 6,100 feet of 24-inch gravity line along Steep Bayou. The gravity line connects the lift station from the north side of Interstate 20 to New Natchitoches Road, which is located south of I-20.
The project could cost the sewer district roughly $1 million. The police jury has applied for $2.8 million in federal stimulus money to help pay for the project.
"And, we've got another $750,000 to $1 million project for our part with the city of West Monroe and the Sparta Reuse Project," Cox said.
The reuse project, which is being spearheaded by the city of West Monroe, will allow Graphic Packaging to use wastewater in its production process. By using wastewater in its production process, Graphic Packaging eventually could be removed from the endangered Sparta Aquifer. The company currently draws 10 million gallons per day from the aquifer.
"The state paid for the biggest part of it, but we still have to come up with matching funds," Cox said.
The state has kicked in roughly $13 million for the Sparta Reuse Project, which local officials estimate will cost up to $20 million.
"So, if I don't have any maintenance, or any breakdown facing me in the next two and a half years, we're looking at roughly $3 million (on projects) that we don't have a choice on," Cox said.
The sewer district has roughly 700 miles of pipe, and most of it is 35 to 40 years old, Cox said.
"It's just a matter of time, and it takes a lot of maintenance to maintain it," Cox said.
Meanwhile, the sewer district may entertain a rate increase in the next few years to cover the additional operation and maintenance cost for the Sparta Reuse project, Lazenby said.
"That's probably going to cost $9 to $12 a month per customer," Lazenby said, which would bring the monthly cost for sewer district customers to roughly $30 per month.
"Nobody wants to pay more money, but to keep the level of service, sometimes you have to pay a little more," Lazenby said.
Cox added, "And that part is being dictated to us due to our arrangement with the city of West Monroe. We collect the wastewater and the city treats it. Any cost associated with that inside their boundaries, we're in it for half. They told us the rates would be anywhere from $9 to $12 (for the Sparta Reuse Project). So, that's out of our hands."
Cox said the sewer district has worked hard to keep rates down for its customers. He said the district has never asked its customers for something it did not need.
"Besides the tax millage, which we've dropped quite a few times, and the sewer fees, No. 5 has never asked anybody for anything," Cox continued. "But, it's coming now where there's too much out there going on that we have to address.
"When you compare what you spend on cable or satellite or even your cell phone, this is one of the best deals going around. And you have to have this ... it's a necessity.
"I think we've been good stewards of the people's money. I think we've proven that. We are going to continue to try and keep our cost down, but some of this is out of our hands ... what the city tells us is the treatment cost and we're in for half."
When the sewer district moves wastewater to the city of West Monroe's treatment plant, it is treated by the city at a cost of roughly $25,000 each month. Once the Sparta Reuse Project comes online, that cost will increase to around $100,000 each month, Cox said.
"That's where that other $9 to $12 comes in," Cox said.
The sewer district will conduct its regular meeting at 11 a.m. Monday, Aug. 10, where the sewer district's governing board could review the rate increase study. The board meets at its office located at 327 Wallace Rd., near Acme Glass.
Since the police jury created the sewer district, police jurors must approve any rate increase for the district. It is expected the $5 rate increase will be brought before the police jury before the end of the year, possibly in several months. The police jury would conduct a public meeting regarding any rate increase before final action is taken.
Jay Mitchell, an assistant 4th Judicial District Attorney who also serves as attorney for the Ouachita Parish Police Jury, said the sewer district is well-run.
"Sewer District No. 5 consistently has excellent reports on their audit," Mitchell said. "Based on information I've seen, they consistently have the lowest rate of any sewer district of any other sewer district in the parish."
"Even with this proposed increase, their rates are still significantly lower than the rates of other sewer districts in the parish," Mitchell added.
Though the police jury has authority over the sewer district, Cox said the sewer district has its own board and funding.
"They appoint our board, but really, we are the only one around that has its own budget, and our own money," Cox said. "The police jury doesn't give us one penny."
The sewer district has an annual operating budget of around $2 million. It employs six people.
"Most systems our size have 13 to 15 people, but I have six in the field, and we've only hired two in the past five year," Cox explained. "I've got a real good crew, and right now, we are doing everything we can to keep cost down."
Police jurors Mack Calhoun and Charles Jackson represent the areas in western Ouachita Parish that are served by the sewer district.