DONALDSONVILLE — City residents aired concerns Tuesday about what effect a proposed 39% boost in residential water rates would have on the west bank community's poor and elderly, but some also acknowledged the need for upgrades to the old Peoples Water Co. operation dating from the mid-1920s.
A few business owners, who are also seeing rate increases, also questioned why the new base rate for businesses would be $10 higher than the residential base rate while others questioned why they were learning about the increases after it seemed they were just about a done deal. Glenn Price, 62, of Donaldsonville, said the fee increases should have been put to a public vote.
Ascension Parish government bought the Peoples Water Co. system in fall 2016 for $5.9 million and is planning to use $17.5 million in federal grant and loan dollars to replace 21 miles of distribution lines, replace 3,000 aging water meters, and upgrade the system's water plant along the Mississippi River that draws from Bayou Lafourche.
The changes would also allow the parish to finish linking up Ascension's existing water network outside the city with the Donaldsonville water plant and stop buying water from Assumption Parish.
The Parish Council is scheduled 6 p.m. Thursday to vote on the residential, commercial and industrial rate increases expected to take full effect Jan. 1.
William Daniel, the parish infrastructure director, and other parish government representatives met with city residents Tuesday to discuss plans a few years in the making. In addition to the planned improvements, Daniel and Councilman Oliver Joseph emphasized the benefits of the U.S. Department of Agriculture dollars, about $8 million in a grant and $9.5 million in a loan that will be paid back over 40 years at low interest but is requiring the rate increases.
"This is about the best of a deal you can get with money," Daniel said.
He also pushed back against the idea of a public vote, noting the Parish Council is the rate-setting authority and the parish had to show it had the resources to pay off the USDA loan.
For 6,000 gallons per month in household use, the residential rates for 2,900 customers would rise from $33.10 per month to $45.96 per month.
If approved, residential rate increases would be phased in June 1 — a 21% increase — so homeowners can fix leaks before the full rate increase begins, but nearly 500 commercial and industrial users would see increases that take full effect June 1.
Yet, in a city where nearly one-third of the 7,975 residents live at or below the poverty line and more than 17% percent are 65 or older, some of the roughly 40 people in attendance Tuesday questioned the impact on city's most vulnerable, a concern Mayor Leroy Sullivan has raised previously.
"There's a lot of elderly people on fixed incomes," said contractor Keith Bradford, 61, of Donaldsonville. "The cost-of-living raise (for Social Security payments) isn't that much, alright? And a lot are barely making it as it is."
But Daniel pointed out that for the residential rate increases, the base rate — the minimum everyone pays before usage fees kick in — would only increase about a dollar.
That way, he said, elderly water users who would likely use the minimum amount of water would only see the minimum increase of about a $1 per month.
"A dollar a month is a lot for some people," Bradford said. "It is a lot for some of the elderly people."
"Well, I don't know how I can do better than a dollar a month," Daniel answered.
Under the parish's proposed changes, the base monthly rate would rise from $17.02 to $18.60, a $1.58 increase, but the changes also shrink the minimum usage for that base rate from the first 3,000 gallons to the first 2,000 gallons.
"But what's the answer, you know?" Patsy Harrell, 77, of Donaldsonville, asked Bradford. "Would you want to pay more for yours to give them less? And whose going to determine who is capable" of receiving a break?
Daniel said a number of state and federal programs help people on fixed incomes with their expenses but not the USDA loan program. He said the parish could raise rates further and set aside money to help the elderly with their bills but then the parish would have to find a way to decide who should get that break.
"It seemed to be a fairer solution to try to raise the lowest possible monthly charge and then charge people who use lots of water," Daniel said.
Under the proposed residential increase, monthly usage rates, which are charged after the minimum number gallons built into the base rate are used, would increase from $5.36 per 1,000 gallons used to $6.84 per 1,000 gallons used. The usage rate change would not take effect until Jan. 1.
Stanford Knockum Sr., 65, of Donaldsonville, who suggested the parish consider grandfathering in rates for the elderly, agreed the work is necessary.
"I think it's needed," he said in a later interview. "I think we need it. We need it bad."