St. Bernard Parish officials plan to hold a town hall meeting in two weeks to explain a scheduled vote on increasing water and sewer rates by 70 percent.
The Parish Council has discussed increasing the rates for most of the past year.
The town hall meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 5. The council will meet the next day and could vote then on the proposal.
Residents using 8,000 gallons of water each month would see their combined water and sewer bills rise to $59.41 per month, up from $34.94 a month at present.
The council’s Water and Sewer Committee met Monday to discuss the proposal, and members decided to hold the town hall meeting.
A consulting firm hired this year to evaluate the parish’s water system found that water rates are too low by almost a third and sewer rates are 80 percent below operating costs, according to the report by UtiliWorks, a Baton Rouge firm that helps companies manage energy bills.
The report also said the parish’s water usage is more than double the national average on a per-capita basis, likely the result of a high number of heavy industrial plants.
Overall, the firm found that the parish’s water system needed about $31 million in capital improvements, including a $21 million effort to replace old, cast-iron water lines, largely in Arabi and Violet, that have a history of leaking.
In addition to needing infrastructure upgrades, the report said, St. Bernard’s water operations are significantly understaffed and regular maintenance has not been performed on the water system, which can lead to higher long-term costs.
The parish’s water infrastructure drew heavy scrutiny following the death of a 4-year-old boy in August 2013. The boy had contracted a rare brain-eating amoeba, apparently on a Slip ’N’ Slide at a mobile home near Violet.
Public health experts contended at the time that insufficient chlorine levels likely contributed to the presence of the amoeba in parts of the parish’s water system.
In late 2013, state tests showed water supplies in several parts of St. Bernard — including near where the boy is believed to have been infected — had low chlorine levels. The parish then started flushing its water lines with additional chlorine to minimize the threat of the amoeba.
Some experts suggested that St. Bernard’s sharp population drop in the wake of Hurricane Katrina played a factor in the contamination. Because fewer residents are using the water, they suggested, it’s not moving as actively through the system.
Parish officials are working with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals’ drinking-water revolving loan fund to replace the cast-iron water lines. The parish has identified 31 cast-iron segments of piping that are marked for high priority to be replaced, which would reduce water leaks.
Adding a new 20-foot water line extension along La. 46 also has been targeted as a way to reduce low-pressure problems and improve fire protection in lower St. Bernard, officials say.
The parish last increased its rates in 1997.
In Orleans Parish, customers of the Sewerage & Water Board are seeing their bills climb steadily. In 2012, the board approved increasing rates by 10 percent annually for eight years, starting last year.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.