If Westwego Mayor John Shaddinger has his way, voters will be asked to approve 10 mills in new property taxes next spring, with 2 mills each to upgrade the city’s aging water and sewage treatment plants and 6 mills for new Fire Department trucks and equipment.
The City Council hasn’t voted to put the new taxes on the ballot, but Shaddinger mentioned the plan Monday night at the council’s monthly meeting, and no council members expressed any opposition.
The city now collects 23.93 mills in property taxes, 4.28 mills of which go toward operation of the Fire Department.
Fire Chief Charles Hudson told the council that his department has no funding dedicated to replacing its aging trucks and other equipment. It hasn’t purchased any new equipment in eight years, and the money to maintain its fleet and equipment often comes from the general fund.
The request for new taxes to fund water and sewage treatment plant maintenance and operations is part of the city’s ongoing battle against its aging infrastructure. The water plant is cracked and needs two new transfer pumps, while the sew age plant received $4 million in urgently needed repairs several years ago. Both services operate at a loss.
Water and sewer service funding was a major point of debate a year ago, when Shaddinger proposed increasing fees for those services by 40 percent. After public outcry and opposition from several council members, the council approved a 12.5 percent increase this year and another 12.5 percent increase next year.
Shaddinger said at the time that the city was subsidizing the water and sewer services to the tune of $700,000 a year from the general fund. At the same time, the city had less than $200,000 in reserve, which he said was dangerously low.
The deteriorating condition of Westwego’s water plant came up at another point during Monday’s meeting, when state Rep. Robert Billiot, D-Westwego, told the council that $2.8 million in state matching funds that were set aside to repair the water plant might not be available much longer.
Officials had decided to replace the plant with a new one after finding out repairs could cost more than $10 million, though Shaddinger said Monday he has been in contact with a company that said it could make the repairs needed to keep the plant running for another two decades for about $3 million.
Councilman Glenn Green, who supports pursuing the new water plant, questioned that possibility, saying he was suspicious of someone promising to make the necessary repairs for a low price when earlier estimates said the job was much more expensive.
“We’ve had some shoddy work done around town before because somebody came in with a low bid,” he said.
Billiot said fixing the plant is urgent, and the council voted 4-0, with Councilman Larry Warino abstaining, to let Shaddinger get a detailed estimate on repairing the plant.
In other business, a vendor with the annual Westwego Cypress Swamp Festival, which wrapped up over the weekend, told the council that attendance has fallen dramatically in the three years since the event was moved from its spot along the West Bank Expressway to the downtown Farmers Market.
The city moved the festival after its former space was converted into a baseball field and officials didn’t want to have the grass destroyed, but vendor John Marks said the new location isn’t visible enough.
“It was just bad out there,” he said of the three-day festival. “It was very slow.”
Marks, who has had a psychic-readings booth at the festival for years, said the number of rides and entertainers has dwindled along with attendance. He said he made $150 on Saturday, compared to about $900 at the other location.
“We lost our shirt, let’s be honest,” Green agreed.
“It’s too far off the beaten path, and nobody sees it,” he said.
Shaddinger said the city was disappointed with this year’s attendance and acknowledged that the new venue provides “nowhere near the exposure” as the old one, but he cautioned that doing $10,000 worth of damage to the new grass on the old site isn’t necessarily the answer.
He said getting the festival back to where it should be could cost as much as $50,000, and that the city would look into all options for improving the festival next year.
A privately owned site on the expressway was briefly considered, but officials dropped the idea after it was found to have large holes in the ground. Someone once fell into one and sued the property owner, the city learned.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.