‘This is going to hurt,’ Vidalia mayor says of high energy cost

Published 1:49 pm Wednesday, March 9, 2022

VIDALIA — Recent inflation of fuel and utility prices affects not only families, but their government services as well, officials said.

During her report at a Vidalia Board of Aldermen meeting on Tuesday, CPA Debra Moak said the town was over their expense budget for the year due for utilities and materials and supplies with the current rise in gasoline prices.

“The cost of gas has exceeded the budget amount for the (fiscal) year with five months left to go,” Moak said.

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The budget reflects an increase in utility revenue due to higher energy costs which helps offset the town’s energy cost, she said. Revenue for the last seven months ending in January was approximately $21.8 million while expenditures were $20.9 million for a positive change in net position of approximately $978,000.

Vidalia Mayor Buz Craft said the town “does not make more money” when utility costs are higher.

“We make a percentage or a spread just like with gas stations,” he said. “Right now, we’re looking at nearly $4 (per gallon) gas and over $4 diesel. It’s going to be critical. We really have to start examining our budget and I encourage each family to look at their personal budgets and minimize their travel. This is going to hurt.”

Craft said the town is looking at ways to help the situation, including ways to provide residents with financial aid services if their bills become more than they can handle.

“Anything we can do legally, we will try to do as a town to help our citizens,” he said.

Amid the energy crisis, the Town of Vidalia also received some good news, Craft said during Tuesday’s board meeting.

Last week, the town received a letter stating that the Vidalia Industrial Park and Port Complex North and South is now “certified development-ready” by the Louisiana Economic Development Authority.

The letter serves as verification that the town has done its due diligence regarding legal control of the property for sale or lease, including necessary zoning restrictions, surveys, title work, soil analysis and engineering. The sites are subject to recertification after five years if they are still on the market, Craft said.

“This is good news. This puts us in the competition for a lot of people kicking the tires in Vidalia, ready to go and do business. This didn’t start just this year. It has been a work in progress,” Craft said.

Paul Jahn, commercial manager for Syrah Technologies, followed this report with an update on the industry’s expansion of the Vidalia graphite milling plant.

After signing an offtake agreement with Tesla Inc. and procuring the financial backing for the project, Jahn said the expansion is “already moving ahead full-throttle.”

From the outside, Jahn said people can see fencing being moved and groundwork beginning at the plant. Syrah purchased more land to the north of the plant to make way for the facility’s expansion.

“We could not have come to this milestone without the tremendous support of everybody in this room and the entire parish as a whole,” Jahn said to the Board of Aldermen. “We are enormously grateful for it. At the same time, we think everyone here can be incredibly excited about the future that this represents, not just for this single project in this single company but for what it represents as bragging rights and a stepping off point to bigger and better things for the entire electric vehicle supply chain.”

Jahn added all of the mechanical work for the expansion is projected to be complete in the middle of 2023 with production to start in the latter part of the third quarter of 2023.

Alderman Jon Betts said before Syrah announced their expansion, he saw the company take its building from being “an eyesore to something we as a community can be proud of.”

“I for one am excited for the change,” he said.

Craft also announced the Louisiana Gas Association is planning to host its annual conference at the Vidalia Convention Center from March 20 through 23.

This event includes activities that are open to the public, including a barbeque cook-off and bass fishing and golf tournaments and exhibitors with classes, he said.

“Our hotels are sold out,” Craft said. “I’ve been to their conventions and they’re usually in big cities. We were really proud to be able to land those. … Hopefully this will be a springboard for other conventions to come.”