Residents pack meeting to air utility rate concerns

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 14, 2000

VIDALIA, La. – Residents packed into town hall Tuesday night for the Vidalia Board of Aldermen meeting, mostly to air complaints and get answers regarding rising utility rates.

Vidalia citizens said they were promised before the Murray Hydroelectric plant opened in 1990 that, with resulting royalties the town would receive from the plant’s power production, they might actually get a rebate this year.

&uot;We feel the hydroelectric plant was put in under false pretenses,&uot; Charles Partridge said.

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&uot;I&160;can understand why people are upset,&uot; added Bobby Lowe. &uot;When we entered into this (hydroelectric) contract, the word on the street was that … (utility) rates would not go up.&uot;

But starting this month, the total rate for electric, gas, water and sewer service will go up by about $35 a month for the average Vidalia consumer, mostly due to the cost of producing energy, according to Mayor Hyram Copeland. Without rate hikes, the town would face a $970,000 deficit next year, he has said.

Vidalia last increased rates in 1997, when the minimum monthly water rate went up more than $3. Electric rates went up 8 percent in 1987, and sanitation rates went up almost $5 in 1993.

Revenue from the hydroelectric plant has been used to help prevent utility rate increases in the past. &uot;That has saved the average customer $32 a month,&uot; said Town Manager Kenneth Davis.

But after two years of drought, the plant is currently producing very little power and, under its current contract, can delay paying royalties to the town until its production — and revenues — increase.

The plant, which cost more than $550 million to build and is owned by a private partnership, owes the town $1.7 million in royalties, Davis said. &uot;We will get those royalties, but I don’t know when it will be,&uot; he said.

Town officials said the plant will benefit all of Concordia Parish beginning in 2001.

The plant will go on the parish’s tax rolls next month, and the parish will start receiving tax revenues from it in December 2001. &uot;That will mean several million dollars to the parish,&uot;&160;said Town Attorney Jack McLemore.

To help offset rate increases, the town has trimmed its budget about 10 percent, according to Copeland. Later in the meeting, the board approved the town’s 2000-01 budget, which includes $15.3 million in expenditures.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Simonton Lane resident Debbie Brocato presented a petition to the board containing the signatures of 24 neighbors who want the town to improve drainage in their area.

Water rose into yards — and in the case of Brocato and some neighbors, into houses — in that area Nov. 8 following severe thunderstorms.

Copeland said improvements to the town’s drainage system will do little good in such a storm unless improvements are made to Cocodrie Bayou, into which parish canals flow.

But that bayou is protected under the Scenic Waterways Act, which Copeland said makes it almost impossible to construct improvements there. &uot;Contact your senators and representatives,&uot; Copeland told the crowd.