St. Charles residents to see rate increase

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 6, 2001

Leonard Gray

HAHNVILLE – The average utility bill St. Charles Parish consumers will an average of $10 more than before, as a result of the adoption of a new sewer use rate Wednesday.
The new sewage treatment rate, from $1.80 to $3.24 per 1,000 gallons for residential consumers, was a compromise position approved at a special meeting by the parish council this week after the council initially voted down a higher proposed rate increase on Dec. 18.
Earlier, council chairman Terry Authement said he would not call a special meeting unless someone appeared ready to change their vote. The earlier vote was 5-4 for approval, but six votes are necessary for approval according to the parish charter.
However, a special meeting was called, Authement said, to discuss the proposed rate increase and that he anticipated no vote would be taken.
What happened instead was that Councilman Lance Marino of Norco moved after more than an hour of discussion to change his vote and proceed with a vote on approval. This was done, and the new rate was OKd by a 7-2 count, with Councilman G. “Ram” Ramchandran and Councilwoman Dee Abadie voting against the action.
Besides Marino changing his vote, Councilman Clayton “Snookie” Faucheux did likewise.
The council has debated, argued and sweated out a proposed rate hike since a 1997 rate study was updated by Parish President Albert Laque last summer, and proposed a $4.05 rate to cover operations and maintenance of the two new federally-mandated sewage treatment plants which opened this year.
That would have been a 101 percent rate hike from the $1.80 which has been charged since April 1994, according to figures provided from the parish finance office. Instead, a 65 percent rate increase was approved, with the average bill, based on 7,000 gallons, going from $15.60 for sewerage treatment to $25.68.
That means the current average utility bill, including $14.25 for water, $11.43 for garbage and $1.77 for recycling, will jump from $43.05 to $53.13.
The ordinance finally approved by the parish council also contains a paragraph stating that if the parishs voters approve the one-cent sales tax proposition on the April 7 ballot, the rate will go back to $1.80.
Abadie told the council that moving the rate back to $1.80 would be a mistake, giving voters the message that the parish would increasingly subsidize the program, and insisting that sales tax revenue should be used for capital improvement projects, not operations and maintenance.
Instead, she continued, a phased-in rate increase would not hit consumers as hard and would be more acceptable. “People want to pay for what they use,” she said. “They just want it phased in. This is fiscally irresponsible.”
Finance Director Lorrie Toups said, at that point, the revenue from half the sales tax would provide the foundation for operations and maintenance, with the user fee revenue providing the balance.
Toups added that the $3.24 rate will provide estimated annual revenues of $5,440,000. The originally proposed $4.05 rate would have provided $6.6 million.
The other half-cent of the sales tax is already earmarked for hurricane protection capital projects on the East Bank and the West Bank.
Debate on the issue occasionally got pointed, with Councilman Brian Fabre stating at the outset, “I dont understand the confusion now; either raise the rates now or pass a tax. I wish somebody would explain it to me.”
Likewise, when Ramchandran began to once more push for his own rate increase plan, Councilman Barry Minnich called him down, and said, “Ram, youre only trying to confuse the issue. I dont need any more comments from you. Im not confused at all.”