Mayor recommends conservative spending of hydroelectric funds

Published 2:05 pm Thursday, August 24, 2023

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VIDALIA, La. — In the first of two meetings to discuss what to do with surplus funds from hydroelectric royalties on Tuesday, Vidalia Mayor Buz Craft suggested being conservative with those funds.

A second meeting is planned for 5 p.m. Thursday at the Vidalia city council chambers.

The Sidney A. Murray Jr. Hydroelectric Station south of town has been financed by a number of investors. However, the town is a co-licensee of the station and receives royalties from the power sold. These royalties capped out at 20 percent of the station’s gross revenue in 2022.

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In an agreement the town struck with Catalyst, one of the station’s main investors, over 30 years ago, Vidalia will have the option to fully own the plant in 2030.

Craft said the plant has had “a profound impact” on the town since its inception.

“Without it, we couldn’t be the town that we are, and it’s only become more and more important as we see energies turn to green energies,” he said.

“There will come a time when we have to make some decisions in 2030 with the money from the hydro fund. We might need this money to make a deal that would take the project into the next 30 to 40 years for our citizens. Years after I’m gone, we need to make sure that this is something that will be good for our people. I can promise you we’re going to see to that.”

Currently, the town has $27,280,437 total in cash and investments. Of that, $11.8 million is in checking accounts and $15.2 million is in investments, Craft said.

Last year, $11 million of the hydro fund was used to pay off all of the town’s debts, which Craft said saves the town on interest payments.

Governing officials also have the option to refund up to 50% of the customers’ utility bills with rebate checks. Plans are being made now to set aside $3.5 million for those rebates again this year.

Craft said while the high cost of utilities is surely felt now in the heat of the summer, the rebate usually comes as a welcome gift to the town’s utility customers later in the fall. Those who owe money on their bill receive a credit for what they owe instead.

The total amount of hydrofund money still available, not including $2.4 million in a reserve account, amounts to just under $12.5 million, Craft said.

“I suggest cutting that in half to start building up a savings account towards the decision of what we’re going to do in the future with the hydro plant,” he said. “It’s going to be costly, whatever we do, and we want to make sure we have those monies in the bank and in investments to make smart decisions for the town.”

That would only leave around $6 million for additional spending.

“If you want to increase that amount, it’s up to you,” Craft said to the board.

Bill Murray, the son of the late Sidney A. Murray Jr., whose dream it was to build a hydroelectric station for the town, praised officials’ work and emphasized the importance of being conservative and paying the rebate.

“I appreciate everything I’m hearing about what is being done with it so far and I want to caution you … (this agreement) will run out in just a few short years and the money that this town will get out of the hydro is going to go down quite a bit,” he said. “It’s going to be very significant. … There needs to be a sizable savings put aside so that the people of Vidalia won’t suffer paying the full high rate for electricity. The main thing was to stabilize rates and give a rebate to offset the cost of power. … It’s easy to let that go away. … Many years went by when I didn’t sleep because I was worried about the way things were being handled. I sleep very soundly now.”

In previous meetings, the town discussed several options that remain on the list, including $400,000 for a new playground, around $200,000 for the Vidalia slough project — meant to improve drainage — supplemented with $1 million from the Department of Transportation, and beautification projects including decorative lighting along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

Officials also look to begin phase one of the Polk Park project near the municipal complex and existing pond and tennis courts, which include playgrounds, a splash pad, parking, bathrooms and new infrastructure improvements around the tennis courts.

Bids are being sought for the renovation of the Masonic Lodge.

Alderman Robert Gardner suggested the town purchase insurance for the annual Memorial Day Parade and Alderman Tommy Probst suggested cutting back trees that could interfere with the town’s power grid to spare the town from potential storm damage.

While officials previously discussed giving $500,000 to Concordia Parish School District to place artificial turf on the Vidalia football field, that offer is now “off the table” since the school district instead decided to resurface the Vidalia and Ferriday fields with natural grass.

Completed and ongoing projects also include street overlay, which has been done along Peach, Myrtle and Alabama streets. Next on the list is finishing Elm Street, followed by Florida and Georgia streets and possibly Cross Street.