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Bossier City lawmakers hope future trumps past

As city elections appear in the distant horizon, it appears Bossier City lawmakers might want to make voters forget about the last major decision regarding water and sewerage just months after the last elections.

Recently, the city authorized a private firm to operate its water and sewerage services. But concerning the last major policy changes for its handling of waste in 2013, for the citizenry it was one step forward, two steps back. Then, the city's object of privatization was its solid waste collection, now in its third year.

True, clients for the city’s water and sewerage saw an $8 hit per month increase under privatization of garbage pickup. That wasn't intolerable, because Shreveport, which had provided the service contractually, did not anticipate well its own cost structure and found costs rising significantly faster than what it had charged the city under the previous deal. On top of that, the city also subsidized about a quarter of those payments out of the general fund.

So the increase was not unreasonable given the existing rate – although mind there had been subterfuge in that for years, where a hike a decade ago really ended up offsetting shortfalls in money for emergency services and mowing grass that could have been prevented had the city not blown some $85 million (then) on a money-losing arena and parking garage tied to a retail facility that went into receivership – and the start-up costs necessary for the contractor. Over time, a privatized operation should demonstrate more efficient operation and reduce, if not eliminate for many years, any rate increase, which so far has been the case. That’s the step forward.

But the two steps back came from, following Shreveport, the city’s hiking of the basic water and sewerage charge, in this case $15 a month, separately from garbage pickup. As with Shreveport, most politicians pled that this would provide working capital to upgrade facilities for presumed growth and to fend off federal government regulatory intervention if it thinks the quality and safety of water is compromised from dated equipment. Press all but councilors Jeff Darby and Tommie Harvey (who voted against the hike) for an explanation why ratepayers had to bear the burden of that increase, and they could point to Ch. 20 Sec. 8 of the city charter, which states that, if in the judgment of the appointed Director of Finance after a review of the past two years of data an increase is needed to meet expenditures in water and sewerage provision, it shall be recommended and it is the “duty” of the Council to adopt a schedule to close the gap.

Which, when scrutizined as an excuse, is a cop out. The expenditures that make up part of the equation include those spent on capital improvements, both principal and interest if done through debt financing, and a minimum of 5 percent of receipts from provision of services is to be deposited annually in the fund to finance capital improvements. However, sources to finance them can come from other sources. For example, according to paragraph (C) nothing prohibits the city from voluntarily placing funds into the contingency account at any time that can be drawn upon to fund improvements (which then can free funds for elsewhere), and according to paragraph (D) a variety of other sources also may provide these funds including up to $3 million a year from other city capital improvement funds.

In other words, the city is not a prisoner to revenues from service provision in paying off these things, and there are alternatives, including other city money, from being used to finance capital matters, although not for ongoing operations. Thus, capital improvements need not in their entirety be passed along to ratepayers, or even at all.

And these would not have to have been had prior city elected officials made better choices with the people’s money. Besides wasting it on the arena and garage, it also threw away $35 million on the high-tech office building housing the Cyber Innovation Center, which has created next to no new jobs or economic activity that otherwise would not have found quarters in other area locations or built their own (joined by Bossier Parish and the state wasting $15 million and $58 million, respectively, on the joint). That roughly $120 million could have paid for all the imaginable improvements and expansion to the utility system citizens could have wanted.

Instead, members prior to 2013– including Darby, David Montgomery, Tim Larkin, Scott Irwin, and Bubba Williams – flushed this bonanza down the toilet, along with Mayor Lo Walker both in his present capacity and in his prior stint as the city’s chief administrative officer, and now expect citizens to pay for their stupidity. And three years later after improvements, the same lot has decided to turn over management of those facilities, an extremely ironic development as then the city was told a rate hike then would preclude any for many years to come. Further irony came when Darby and Harvey turned up as the only two votes against the outsourcing.

Whether the estimated savings to the city of over $2 million a year, after about a million in transition costs, makes them hope ratepayers will forget the unnecessary hikes of the past in time for elections, we don't know. Voters mainly short-term memory, and the promise of future savings might trump past performance of avoidable hiking of rates for these councilors and the mayor, all apparently desiring reelection next spring.

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