The Abita Springs Town Council will answer the town’s $6.3 million question Tuesday night, when members consider whether to increase water and sewer rates substantially to pay for rehabilitating the town’s decaying sewer system.
The meeting starts at 6 p.m.
Council members will decide whether to approve a resolution that would increase the monthly rate for an average residential customer using 5,000 gallons from $38.80 to $61.00. For an average commercial customer using 7,000 gallons, the rate would go from $64.92 per month to $127.00.
Under the proposal, the average residential bill would be $21 for water and $40 for sewer, up from $12.25 and $26.55, respectively. The average bill for commercial customers would be $63 for water and $64 for sewer — up from $20.50 and $44.42, respectively.
The new rates would take effect in August, said Kathy Armand, the town clerk.
"Our sewer system has been broken for a long time," Mayor Greg Lemons said. "It has been in disrepair for many, many years, and we can’t go any longer. It is basically a sewer rehab, but it is tied to water as well."
The system, much of which was built under the Works Progress Administration in 1938, includes a large amount of terra cotta water mains, which have cracked and crumbled over the years.
According to a report prepared by Principal Engineering, the system consists of 14.5 miles of gravity collection main, 240 manholes, 15 pumping stations, four miles of force main and 1,069 service connections.
Andre Monnot of Principal Engineering said to replace the system today would cost about $25 million.
"We can’t afford that," Lemons said, "so we looked at what we felt we could afford."
Lemons said that while the cost might seem high to some, he believes the town will actually begin to save money after the project, which would get underway in January, is completed in June 2019.
"We’re replacing lift station pumps on a regular basis," he said. "Because the system faults add to the workload, we use two times as much electricity ... and we’re having to use more chemicals to treat. In 2016, we spent $200,000 just replacing equipment."
The system has deteriorated so much that every time there's a hard rain, water infiltrates the system through the breaks, he said. "It either goes into the Abita River or into our ditches, which goes into the river — raw sewage into our river."
The town’s sewer treatment plant, which has a 500,000-gallon daily capacity, handles about half that much on a dry day. However, during a heavy ran on June 1, the plant pumped more than 1 million gallons. "That’s 500,000 illegal gallons,” Lemons said.
In addition to the deteriorating lines and overloaded pumps, there is no mapping available for the current system. The proposal includes geographical information system mapping of the entire system.
Lemons said the town explored numerous mechanisms for funding the project, but the only viable option is a $6 million loan through the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund, which has an interest rate of .95 percent a year over 20 years.
The plan developed by Principal includes $3.6 million to rehabilitate the gravity pipes and manholes; $1.8 million to rehabilitate and upgrade lift stations; $600,000 for engineering, legal and construction oversight; $200,000 for equipment; and $100,000 for electronic utility mapping.
"We pretty much have (the opportunity to get) this loan until the end of August," Lemons said. "After that, it’s gone."
But to qualify, the town has to show that it can make the $28,000 monthly payment on the repairs. That’s where the rate increases come in.
Abita Springs uses revenue from its natural gas system to offset shortfalls in the water and sewer budgets — $48,000 for sewer and $22,000 for water — but because of warmer weather, gas revenues have declined over the past three years, Lemons said. That increases the need for those utilities to pay for themselves.
Armand said she has spent several months reviewing usage records to make sure the plan includes an equitable distribution of costs among all users.
The last rate increases were in 2009 and 2004.
"I took the users into consideration … residential, commercial, seniors and developed a base rate from that and from low (usage) to high," she said.
Town officials made a presentation on the rehab plan to about 100 citizens last week. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with only one person questioning why nothing had been done earlier and challenging the proposal.