It is safe to say that there was not a single member of the Bossier City Council comfortable with raising sewer service fixed rates by $15 per month at Tuesday’s regular meeting. That’s particularly true after listening to five city residents explain their opposition to the increase – and all those residents pointed to this burden on residents who live on fixed incomes.
But the problem for Council members is that they are well educated on the shortcomings and problems of our city’s aging utility infrastructure and the need to upgrade, improve and increase maintenance on the system to avoid costly notice by state the Department of Environmental Quality, or federal Environmental Protection Agency. To date, and over the last several years, that’s been in the form of incremental increases in water, and to some extent, sewer rates.
Unfortunately, those increases haven’t put the city ahead in the area of sewer maintenance – and improvements have also been dependent on an annual $3 million in gaming revenues to the utility system. Pursuant to the Bossier City Charter, the utility system is supported in whole by an “enterprise fund,” a business model that calls for the system to be self-supporting. That means that rates pay should not only for the operation of the system, but for all maintenance, expansions and improvements. And obviously, the better use of the gaming revenues is capital improvements in transportation and similar undertakings.
That circumstance generated a question by Council member Jeff Darby to city Utility Director Jeffrey Anderson about Anderson’s responsibility to recommend a rate increase in the event of two consecutive years of shortfalls in utility system revenues. While such shortfalls have not occurred, the point was made that any such incidence would be in violation of Charter mandates.
Council member Tim Larkin observed that Council discussion on this issue was a necessity on two levels. Larkin said that it was first a good thing for everyone to know that “… it’s unlawful for us to operate our sewer system at a loss.”
Secondly, he said, “… no matter what we can afford or not, no one can operate a system that operates out of compliance (with the EPA or DEQ).”
That, said Larkin would make a $15 increase look like nothing – a fraction of what it would cost in operating out of compliance. In the end, Larkin noted that the question for the Council is whether the Council is going to follow the law. And he said that when he looks at the work done over the years, the reports and money already spent on new water and sewer plants – “It’s clear what I should do … follow the law and operate the system properly. It doesn’t make me like it anymore.”
Council member Don “Bubba” Williams commented that “nobody likes rate increases …” but that if the city doesn’t increase rates to provide funding for improvements, Bossier faces the prospect of operating under a federal consent decree. He also noted the necessity to repair the underground sewer infrastructure to avoid foreseeable problems, fines and anticipated escalating costs of addressing repairs and improvements to a generally half century old underground system.
On the other side of the issue, Council member Tommy Harvey expressed concern that the council hadn’t considered other options, such as incremental increases in rates, or perhaps basing the increases on usage. And Council member Jeff Darby discussed his concerns for the impact of increasing costs, especially in light of the recent solid waste increase, and the difficulty of those of limited incomes to absorb these costs.
The measure to increase sewer fixed rates passed on a 5 – 2 vote. But there was no joy in that majority – only the recognition that the cost of delaying major repairs to the sewer system would be far more costly in the future that it was on Tuesday.
Marty Carlson is a columnist for the Bossier Press-Tribune. She may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org