This week Benton water, sewer, and solid waste collection customers will receive a letter from Mayor Wayne Cathcart and Town Council members advising of fairly significant rate hikes in these services.
But those hikes didn’t come easily – and the process described by Cathcart that helped these town leaders arrive at the deciding on the increases was a case study in the due diligence we should expect from our elected leaders.
Cathcart explained that the catalyst for reviewing the water and sewer system operation was an observation by the town’s auditors that “…water rates were inadequate …” Cathcart said that while he heard the auditor’s suggestion for the first time about a year and a half ago, that was, apparently, not the first time it had been voiced.
Fairly new to the mayor’s office, Cathcart said, “As I learned more about the utility rate structure and accounting system, it became obvious that we needed to look at rates and explore how we were allocating the cost of operating the water and sewer system. And we found that we were allocating the cost based on rooftops, which was an inadequate way to do it … homes located outside the town limits are often much larger and many have pools.”
Benton buys water from Bossier City and supplies a customer base in the town, and outside of the town limits. The first thing city officials found in their study of the system was that Benton’s customer base is 69 percent outside the town limits and 31 percent in Benton proper. Cathcart said that percentage breakdown helped in allocating costs – and that the allocation will be reviewed annually.
Once that allocation was firmed up, city officials looked at costs of operating the system, including the cost of the water, operations and maintenance, general maintenance, sewer operations, and other factors.
One of the issues that had to be addressed, said Cathcart, was how the revenue from a half-cent sales tax had been used to supplement costs. That revenue was dedicated by voters for the specific purpose of “ … paying costs of constructing and acquiring sewers and sewerage disposal works within and for said Town …” The revenue from this tax has been redirected to its dedicated purpose.
Cathcart said that much research was done to determine the best way to conduct a cost of service analysis, and the bottom line was what town leaders already knew – the utility system was supplemented by funds other than rates.
And that means that the utility system actually operated in the red.
Cathcart took his findings to the Town Council, the members of which readily agreed that reform of the utility system, through increased rates, was in order. Both a public workshop and a subsequent public hearing on the utility rate issue were advertised before the Town Council voted affirmatively to raise the utility rates – as well as solid waste collection rates.
Cathcart said that in the end, he’s hopeful that the town’s utility customers understand the year and a half of research and planning to ensure the data was correct to set the utility system on sound fiscal footing is to the customers’ direct benefit. As an example of what that fiscal soundness counts for is included in some recent improvements to the water and sewer systems.
The “booster system” that transfers the water from Bossier City to Benton has just been completely rebuilt, including a new generator. Additionally another new generator has been installed at the town’s elevated water tank.
And the town is in the process of taking bids for generators to be located at the most critical sewer lift stations. These generators take over in case of power failures, because as Cathcart noted, no one wants a sewer backup.
Cathcart also described what was found when the elevated tower and one of the ground storage tanks were cleaned – the ground tank for the first time in 20 years. It was discovered that the ground tank must be sealed which is not an inexpensive undertaking. And worse, the towns other ground storage tank is 40 years old, so replacing it is preferable to attempting to clean it. The cost of that is estimated at $300,000.
Running a utility system is not a simple or inexpensive undertaking. It’s hoped that customers serviced by Benton’s utility system will appreciate the town administration’s and Council’s work and commitment to providing the best and safest service – at the real rates it costs to provide the service.
Marty Carlson is a columnist for the Bossier Press-Tribune. She may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org