Seventy-eight residents, two churches and one business owe the Village of Waterproof some $200,000 in back utility payments, according to June 2019 utility records.
Individual amounts on the extensive list range from $12,255.60 to $638.88 while the majority of customers owe in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $4,000.
The mayor and aldermen have different ideas on how to remedy the problem, but a state official says Waterproof may be out of compliance with state law, a factor that ultimately could result in the loss of state funds.
To combat the $200,000 in past due bills, those named on the list were required to enroll in a utility payment plan February 1, 2019 according to village documents signed by first year mayor Jarrod Bottley. The payment plan was added to their regular monthly utility bills of customers with past due bills.
The payment plan was in accordance with a previous ordinance unanimously passed during Mayor Caldwell Flood Jr.’s administration that went into effect January 8, 2018.
Customers with a balance of $501 or greater qualified for a six-month payment plan. Those with a balance of $1,001 to $2,000 were given 12 months, $2,001 to $3,000 18 months and $3,001 and above 24 months, according to the ordinance.
If a person declines to enroll in the monthly payment plan their utility services are terminated, and they have to make a full payment to have services restored, according to the ordinance. All payments are required by the 25th of each month and on the 26th services are disconnected.
Even with the payment plan and ordinance, Bottley and aldermen differ on the collection methods.
Bottley’s collection method is to “stay on average.” Each person on the list has to pay the current utility bill in full, but can make a partial payment to their assigned plan as long as they pay the remainder next month in addition to their newly due bill, Bottley said.
“The reality of the situation is this — we are in an impoverished stricken area where the (annual) income is $12,000 or $13,000,” Bottley said. “If my water bill is $900 and you demand me to pay that bill, I can not afford to hire a plumber to fix my leak or pay my others bills like my light bill, car note, car insurance or groceries.”
Many of the high bills are a result of undetected leaking pipes in older homes, Bottley said. Vast majority of homes in Waterproof are 50 years or older.
“We need to work together and help the citizens we have and give them a chance to climb the ladder,” Bottley said. “Some of my aldermen have been on this list and they did not want to be exploited. So why exploit the rest of the citizens? The more citizens we lose - the less our income is.”
“We want to work with the people,” Bottley said. “If I see a person may have a leak, I will call them in here and tell them you have a leak.”
Waterproof may be in violation of Article Seven, Section 14 of the Louisiana Constitution by taking partial payments and could suffer repercussions, said Bradley Cryer, director of local government audit services for the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office.
“We don’t consider a municipality in compliance when they do something like that,” Cryer said. “If they don’t get this cleaned up their state funding can be cutoff.”
Section 14 deals with donation, loan or pledge of public credit.
“Prohibited Uses. Except as otherwise provided by this constitution, the funds, credit, property or things of value of the state or of any political subdivision shall not be loaned, pledged, or donated to or for any person, association, or corporation, public or private,” according to Section 14 of the Louisiana Constitution.
Waterproof alderman’s collection method is to hold those on the list accountable to the terms they agreed to when they signed the plan, said Archie Turner, first-year alderman and cousin to Bottley.
“We can’t keep crying about this,” Turner said. “We have to start enforcing this ordinance and quit playing favorites with people. If the mayor would make people pay across the board, they would know what to expect.”
Turner points to Waterproof’s current debt with its water supplier, Tensas Water System and gas supplier, Verona Energy, as a major reason to aggressively collect from citizens.
“We owe $30,000 to Tensas Water and $70,000 to the gas company,” Turner said. “We have to start collecting.”
Turner’s plan of collection is to aggressively seek monthly payments from each resident on the list.
“We were not elected to serve a certain person or group,” Turner said. “We are elected to serve the village and what is best for the village. We don’t need to worry about an election that is three years away.”
Additionally, he wants a list of those who owe under the $501 amount.
“This list only gives us persons’ names who are $501 and above,” Turner said. “We don’t even know how many people owe $400 (or below).”
Waterproof has approximately 384 utility customers, according to Waterproof’s last Louisiana Legislative audit’s report released on July 7, 2018.
Waterproof’s water sales were $208,925 and gas sales were $179,974 as of June 30, 2017, according to the audit report.
Additionally, sewer service sales were $48,330 and garbage sales were $21,468 in 2017, according to the audit report.
Total operating revenue was $476,553 with total operating expenses being $579,451 equalling to an operating loss of $102,898 for the 2017 fiscal year, according to the audit report.
Complicating the issue is an USDA water revenue bond of $375,713 due in semi-annual installments of $31,181 through July 2035 bearing interest at a rate of 4.5 percent, according to the audit report.
In 1998 Waterproof borrowed $534,881 from USDA for construction of a “new water system,” Bottley said. The system never materialized and Bottley does not know where the money went.
“We are $340,000 in debt for a water system we are not even using,” Bottley said. “What the Board of Aldermen are trying to do is to get the citizens to pay their (bills), so we can afford everything. I am saying you can’t do that. You got to look in reality, and you can’t make a person in this area come up and pay high utilities. You cannot expect a person to pay what took six years (to accumulate) in two years.”
Grants are key in paying Waterproof’s debt and operation expenses, Bottley said.
“Instead of my aldermen running around harassing citizens about a $100 they need to get up off their butt and go out and hustle grants and writers so we can write off some of this debt,” Bottley said. “We have to try to save our future because there is no jobs, no infrastructure and nothing here to attract someone new. Only people we have here are retirees and the disabled, and you can not squeeze blood out of a turnip.”