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Water tower off Taylor Street, seen  Jan. 8, 2019 in Clinton, where residents and business owners have been impacted by ongoing water quality issues.

CLINTON — The Board of Aldermen voted Monday to give Mayor Lori Ann Bell authority to negotiate a contract with East Feliciana Rural Water System to take over and operate the town's water system.

The resolution says the town will transfer its system "with conditions" to the rural cooperative, which has nearly 4,000 owner-customers.

Based on discussions during a public hearing on the transfer, one matter yet to be resolved will be the co-op's acceptance of any conditions placed on the property the town obtained for its wells and water towers.

State health officials pushed the town to merge with the rural utility cooperative's supply and distribution system to save money and get the town's drinking water supply in compliance with state health regulations.

The alternative, if the town tried to go it alone, would be for customers to face steep rate increases to fix a broken water system.

Blake Fogleman, an engineer with the state Department of Health, recently outlined the proposal at a Sept. 9 meeting of town officials and about 50 residents.

The co-op is governed by a nine-member board of directors, and the town and water board would have to enter into a binding agreement in which the town transfers all operational control and decision-making to the co-op's directors.

Town attorney Charles Griffin said an inventory of the town's fixed assets, including land, will be needed for the contract negotiations.

"We have to run the titles to see exactly how the town got them," Griffin said, adding that some of the sites may have been donated and can't be transferred. In those cases, the solution may be to lease the property to the co-op.

Aldermen discussed how the town will collect its sewer fees, which are partially based on water usage. They said the co-op is not interested in billing for sewer.

Responding to a question, Bell said "two or three" of the town's maintenance employees won't be needed when the system is transferred.

The Clinton system came under intense state scrutiny last year after Bell was accused of ignoring inquiries from state health officials and some members of the town's Board of Aldermen complained that Bell had kept them in the dark about the problems facing the town.

The Health Department slapped the town with a lengthy administrative order in January, setting a series of deadlines for Clinton to correct 16 specific problems with its water supply and distribution system, including inadequate chlorine samples in parts of the lines, record-keeping issues, the lack of a certified operator, ongoing leaks, the lack of a backup well to the town's main water supply and others.

The town has hired a Zachary firm, at $7,000 per month, to act as the system's certified operator and assist in bringing the town into compliance with the state order.

Co-op Chairman Richard King said earlier the co-op uses the same company to remain in compliance, but the town's monthly obligation would go away.

"You won't have to pay that," King said.

If the town declined to merge the systems, the work needed to maintain water quality would have cost about $2.25 million. That would include a new well to replace one on Taylor Street that serves as an emergency water source, replacing transmission mains, coating the elevated storage tank on Taylor Street and installing new meters and fire hydrants.

The town also would be required to continue having a certified operator run the system.

Joining the co-op is expected to be less expensive for residents than if the town was to pay for improvements and continue running the water system on its own.

Instead of residential water bills rising from an average $28.49 per month to $51.81, they would stay about the same. And the average commercial bill would rise from $48.68 to $65.04, which is significantly less than significantly less than estimated $90.83 monthly fee if the water system wasn't merged with the co-op.

The rural system would serve as the town's redundant water source, eliminating the need for a new town well, and the co-op would use the town's Pine Ridge Street well and the Taylor Street water tower in its system.

"The state would enter a loan agreement with East Feliciana Rural Water to make all of the improvements in Clinton," Fogleman said.

After the work is finished, the state would forgive the loan under its program to "consolidate to provide good water service to the customer base," Fogleman said.

According to information included with the state presentation, the rural water system has 300 miles of water mains and six wells.

Last year, it signed a $9.3 million grant and loan deal with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to upgrade water mains, drill a backup well at Gurley, a new well on Overton Ford Road, a new 300,000 gallon water tower on Plank Road, upgrade the Battle Road tower and make other improvements.

"In the last two years, they've been making strides in the sustainability of their system," Fogleman said of East Feliciana Rural Water.