Utility tax on ballot for St. Charles voters

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 21, 2001


HAHNVILLE – Voters in St. Charles Parish face a vital tax election on April 7, one which will have a huge effect on their sewer bill, win or lose. However, should the one-cent sales tax pass the voters, the current increase to the utility bill will be slashed from $120 to $96 per year for the median-income household with a $42,500 income. The parish council on Jan. 3 approved a wastewater treatment rate, from $1.80 to $3.24 per 1,000 gallons for residential customers. The average utility bill increased an average of $10 more. The new rate was OK’d by a 7-2 count, with Councilman G. “Ram” Ramchandran and Councilwoman Dee Abadie voting against the action. The council has argued a proposed rate hike since a 1997 rate study was updated by Parish President Albert Laque last summer. The updated study 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 present $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, jumped from $43.05 to $53.13. The Wastewater Department has been in financial trouble for years, with operating losses totaling more than $3.2 million for the years 1996 through 1999, according to information provided by parish public information officer Steve Sirmon. Sirmon added that the fund balance in the department has been drawn down, and more than $5.5 million has been used from the General Fund in the past three years to help stave off the proposed rate hike. The ordinance finally approved by the parish council also contains a paragraph stating that if the parish’s voters approve the 1-cent sales tax proposition on the April 7 ballot, the rate will go back to $1.80. According to Director of Finance Lorrie Toups, 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 earmarked for hurricane protection capital projects on the East Bank and the West Bank. Those projects include the installation of pumps in the East Bank hurricane protection levee. That levee, with considerable financial assistance from the Pontchartrain Levee district, is now nearing completion. Without the pumps, stormwater from Lake Pontchartrain would be held out, but rainfall inside the levee would be trapped by the levee. Estimates for the East Bank pumps, Sirmon said, are more than $20 million. On the West Bank, the long-debated hurricane protection levee will cost the parish as much as $46 million, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. An estimated $340,500 per year is available from the Lafourche Levee District toward this project as well. With the sales tax revenue from this proposed April 7 tax, the money will be bonded on an as-needed basis. If bonded all at once, an estimated $38 million would be available. By bonding on an as-needed basis, the amount of available bonded funding greatly increases and should provide the money needed for the projects.