CLINTON — State health officials want the town of Clinton to merge its water system with that of a rural utility cooperative to save money and get the town's drinking water supply in compliance with state health regulations.

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

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

The plan calls for the town to merge its system with the neighboring East Feliciana Rural Water System, a cooperative with nearly 4,000 customer-owners that is governed by a nine-member board of directors.

The town and co-op 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.

"We've got a lot to do," said Richard King, president of the co-op, which was formed in 1972, but he said lawyers, accountants and engineers for both systems will be working on them.

Fogleman said the systems are looking at about a year of work to finalize the agreement.

The Clinton system came under intense state scrutiny last year after Mayor Lori Ann Bell allegedly ignored inquiries from state health officials, while some members of the town's Board of Aldermen said Bell 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.

Bell said she will set a public hearing on the proposal for the board to act on an agreement. She said details of the proposal will be available to the public at the town hall on Friday.

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.

King said 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.

Fogleman's briefing Monday noted that unresolved corrective actions outlined in the administrative order include system-wide mechanical equipment repairs and documentation of a "cross-connection" control plan.

If the town declined to join the systems, the work needed to maintain water quality, which could cost about $2.25 million, includes 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, installing new meters and fire hydrants.

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

The town is eligible for a 20-year loan from the Health Department, with an interest rate of 2.45% and a maximum loan forgiveness of $200,000.

Repaying the debt and continuing to pay a certified water system operator would put the annual cost of compliance at about $255,000 a year, which would increase the average residential water bill from $28.49 per month to $51.81 and the average commercial bill from $48.68 to $90.83, based on the town's reported monthly usage.

However, if the town elects to join the co-op, the average residential bill would be about $28 per month, with the average commercial bill rising from $48.68 to $65.04, according to figures presented in Monday's briefing.

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 back-up 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.