Port Arthur leaders debating proposed water rate increase for repair needs
Published 12:30 am Saturday, August 12, 2023
A city official makes no qualms about the state of Port Arthur’s infrastructure and the need for a rate increase to fund rehabilitation and repair.
Hani Tohme, consultant to the city manager, is proposing a 7 percent increase in water and sewer rates in order to generate the needed money to get back on track.
The infrastructure neglect may have begun 20 or so years ago.
“This is not like neglect for two, three years on infrastructure,” Tohme said during a recent special council meeting. “By no means was the neglect caused by any council or mayor that were in charge at the time. In my opinion, the neglect was by the people who were in charge who did not bring these issues to the council and who did not tell them this is what we need to fix, this is how much it’s going to cost. That’s what we are doing today and that’s what we are trying to let you all know.”
During a budget update, Tohme said the city’s water service operating fund should be self-sufficient, or an enterprise fund, but it is not.
Rate increases are a must in order to keep up with infrastructure needs and capital improvement projects, but the increases have been few and far between, according to Tohme.
From 2018 to the present, there were three rate increases and three years with no increase. In 2018, the water service fund was basically borrowing from the general fund in order to pay its bills and had a tab of about $54 million through the years.
A rate increase was implemented in 2018 that made enough money to cover expenditures and have $1.9 million in surplus, he said.
“Unfortunately, this did not carry over for the next couple of years because there were no rate increases to keep up with the expenditures,” he said.
The current cost for a household with usage of 5,000 gallons per month is $73.72. Tohme compared this with 10 cities of 50,000 to 100,000 populations and showed Port Arthur close to the middle in cost. The statewide average, he said, is $81.03.
Closer to home, Winnie and Orange charge more than Port Arthur, while Beaumont and the Mid County cities charge less.
A 7 percent rate increase for residents inside the city limits with usage under 10,000 gallons goes from $8.35 to $8.92 on water and $9.07 to $9.70 on sewer.
The total increase on a 5,000 gallon a month household would be an additional $5.16.
Projects, operating cost
There is an operating budget to contend with that
continually increases; chemicals are projected to increase this year $400,000 and the cost of electricity is expected to move up $200,000. This doesn’t include fuel and other costs associated with operating the department.
There are a number of capital improvement projects on the drawing board.
“Our sanitary sewer lift stations are in very bad shape,” Tohme said. “We have 50 lift stations that need attention and we’re trying to do a lot of this design work in-house to eliminate engineering cost and be able to fix more lift stations every year.”
Fire hydrant replacement hasn’t been undertaken in a “long time,” he said and the city has some hydrants that are not functioning. A total of $2 million would be paid toward this project and the rest of the cost will come from a $5.6 million bond.
Mayor Thurman Bartie acknowledges the lack of rate increases through the years along with neglect of the system. He also realizes inflation is an additional burden to contend with.
“We also have a duty to be sure that we provide citizens with proper water that is consumable and at a rate they can afford,” Bartie said.
Bartie does not want to get in the situation of cities in other parts of the nation such as in Mississippi or Michigan.
Councilman Harold Doucet opposes the rate increase. During the recent special meeting he said he doesn’t see throwing the burden on residents when the city leaders went years neglecting the issues.
“When are we going to assume responsibility for ourselves as opposed to turning to the citizens to fix something that we did not do,” Doucet said.
The city will hold several more meetings to discuss the budget and the proposed rate increase before the end of the month.