ST. GABRIEL — The city has gotten slammed yet again by auditors who say a “significant amount” of residential sewer bills remain unpaid, some of which are owed by city employees.
But St. Gabriel Mayor Lionel Johnson noted Wednesday that the latest audit report, released this week, shows the city has made progress in reducing the amount of delinquent sewer bills detailed in its previous audit report.
He pointed out that the city has as already shaved off nearly $100,000 from the $350,000 in delinquent sewer bills that were listed in the previous audit.
“We’re a small town, so we were able to do a lot of community outreach and we gave them an opportunity to come in and give us a deposit on what they owed, and then we put them on a payment plan,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the city is still facing about $245,000 worth of late sewer bills.
In the audit report, released Monday, auditors criticized the city for not having adequate controls in place to effectively monitor the billing and collections of its outstanding accounts — which has been an ongoing problem in most of its previous audits, as well.
Of the 996 customers St. Gabriel has now, Johnson said, 208 have outstanding balances.
When last year’s audit report was released, the city had 874 customer accounts, of which 310 had outstanding balances owed, according to a previous report. Residents, on average, are charged about $15 a month for sewer service, city officials said.
Some accounts have unpaid fines dating as far back as the late 1990s — shortly after the city’s incorporation, Johnson said. The list of delinquent bill payers is filled with the names of deceased people, as well, he said.
“We need to clean up our files and see what we’re going to do about those,” he said.
Part of the city’s problem in trying to tackle the issue lies in the fact that its residential water service is a parish-run utility.
Johnson has said the parish’s control over water service prevents the city from being able to shut down sewer service because both utilities are linked.
But through a new agreement with Iberville Parish, Johnson said, residential water service will now be shut down for sewer bills that are left unpaid for 60 days or longer.
And any new customers who apply for sewer service now have to sign agreements with the city outlining that stipulation, the mayor said.
“This is a problem we’ve had since day one,” Johnson said. “I know a lot of our residents are struggling with low incomes, so I’m willing to work with them to deal with this.”