The start of a new year in East Baton Rouge Parish means the cost of water consumption is on the rise.
For the 13th consecutive year, East Baton Rouge Parish residents will be subjected to a 4 percent increase in their sewer bills that began Jan. 1 to finance a federally mandated sewer system overhaul.
Year to year, the increases are mostly negligible. In 2015, the average sewer user fee for 8,600 gallons of water per month was $45.67. The 2016 average will tick up to $47.50 a month.
That’s an increase of $1.83 per month, or about $22 a year.
But in 2004, when the annual 4 percent increases went into effect, the average monthly bill was only $29.67.
The annual increases aren’t expected to go away anytime soon. In fact, there is no projected date for the fee increases to sunset.
Mark LeBlanc, assistant public works director for capital improvements, said the 4 percent increases should continue until at least 2025, at which point the average monthly bill will be $67.60. At that point, LeBlanc said, he could recommend that bills continue to go up every year but he would be able to lower annual increases to 2 percent. But there’s no telling if and when Baton Rouge residents can expect to see an end to annual rises in the cost of flushing toilets and washing dishes.
East Baton Rouge has amassed tremendous debt to pay for the total rehabilitation of the crumbling sewer system, prone to backups that can cause sewage to flow into residential streets and people’s homes during heavy rains.
The parish has issued $1.37 billion of debt to date to finance the program and has an outstanding principal debt of $1.35 billion. Annual debt payments will range from $66 million to $86 million between next year and 2025, LeBlanc said. After that, they are expected to gradually decrease until 2047, when the debt will be paid off.
A combination of sewer fees and a half-cent sales tax are dedicated to paying off the debt.
LeBlanc said projections could change depending on how much sewer fee and sales tax collections generate every year. The construction of the system also is expected to be completed in 2018, which could change the operating system costs.
But he said the expansion of the system over the past years also could result in increasing operational costs.
While the fee increases are not a new concept, every year East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council members express frustration with the notion there is no end in sight to the cost increases.
Councilwoman Tara Wicker noted at a recent budget hearing that her daughter will be almost 40 by the time the rate increases are expected to decline.
She said in an interview that she had hoped that once construction on the system was finished in 2018 the rate increases would go away.
“I’m concerned; we have people with fixed incomes,” she said. “For some people, it may be real miniscule, but the continued increase can mean the difference between getting food or medication, or a water bill.”
Ryan Heck, the councilman who serves as chairman of the East Baton Rouge Parish Sewerage Commission, didn’t respond to a request for comment, but in a meeting, he questioned whether the city-parish couldn’t lower individual fees by expanding the system to include more people paying into it. Currently, the majority of the parish is included in the sewer system, but some of the outlying areas use private sewer plants.
City-parish officials said they didn’t have the funds available to significantly expand the system.