$65K study approved to streamline utilities; Councilman worries rushed effort will suggest rate hike

Published 12:15 am Saturday, December 30, 2017

LAPLACE — St. John leaders are hoping a $65,000 study provides the parish a roadmap to financial stability across its utilities department, including critically needed water meter service upgrades.

St. John the Baptist Parish residents have been plagued for the better part of two years by inconsistent water metering, leading to dramatically spiked bills and off-schedule billing.

Faulty meters and registers, along with old and rotted pipes, are blamed for the problems as St. John looks to replace the system for $6 million through a bond ordinance approved Wednesday afternoon by St. John Parish Council members.

Also on Wednesday, Parish Council members approved a $65,950 contract with Stantec, a Florida-based consulting firm with an office in New Orleans, to deliver a comprehensive financial planning and cost-of-service study for the parish’s water and sewerage systems, which fall under the guidance of the St. John Utilities Department and director Blake Fogleman.

Stantec’s preliminary report should be available by the end of June, with a complete report and recommendations finalized by the end of August.

“It’s a pretty detailed scope, but the ultimate goal at the end of it is a five-year detailed plan on how to square up (utilities department) financing and become a stand alone (parish entity,)” Fogleman told Parish Council members Wednesday. “That five-year plan would come with a significant amount of recommendations.”

Following a year of water meter complaints, Parish Council members instructed the Administration in Spring 2017 to seek bids on a comprehensive assessment of utility services, which moved forward with proposals from four companies and Stantec’s contract approval this week.

“We’re trying to get a sense of where are we now in terms of processes and revenues and where we need to be,” Parish President Natalie Robottom said. “We’re hoping to have that done by the time we get specs for new meters, so when we have new meters, we’ll have new policies.”

According to Robottom, public entities that run a utility system must make sure the department is self-sustaining in operation planning, maintenance and capital improvements, which is not currently being achieved in St. John Parish.

Parish administrators said the Louisiana Public Service Commission recommended hiring a consulting firm to assess and make utilities department recommendations.

Contested approval

Parish Council members approved Stantec’s vote 7-2, with councilmen Larry Sorapuru Jr. and Larry Snyder voting against the measure.

Snyder questioned why approval was needed now.

When he asked if the assessment’s scope could be changed, Parish administrators said that was not possible because Stantec’s contract met specific language laid out in the proposal process.

“I’m not saying we change the scope, I’m just saying we expand the scope a little bit,” Snyder responded, while also saying he felt the contract was “being pushed down our throats.”

“I don’t believe in all these studies,” Snyder added. “What are they going to come tell us? You need to raise your rates. Trust me, that is going to be the first thing that is going to happen.”

Larry Sorapuru Jr. balked at supporting the measure after Parish Council members failed to support his proposal asking Stantec to cross reference the electrical meters and water meters at no additional cost.

No more delays

Councilwoman Julia Remondet said the Parish put the public off for months by failing to act on water meters and simply bringing up new concerns each meeting.

“I’m tired of giving excuses to the public as to why we don’t have their bill correct,” Remondet said. “It’s necessary for the public to understand that we care if we are doing it correctly.

“I see no reason to wait. Let’s get this done and know when we come into a new system that, at least, our billing is working properly.”

After initially saying he favored delaying a decision on the contract, Councilman Michael Wright supported the measure, adding he does not want any recommendation that requires costs passed along to residents.

“I think we can make a lot of cuts and restructures in house to create some operation efficiencies,” Wright said.

Councilman Kurt Becnel said residents stopped him on Christmas asking about their water bills.

“And, I didn’t have any answer to give these people,” he said. “If this firm can help us a little bit, I’m all for it. I don’t want to delay it another month. It is time we move forward from a business point of view. If you stall and delay, you never get anywhere.”