ST. MARTINVILLE — In St. Martinville, the COVID-19 grace period for utilities is over.
The city will begin setting up payment plans for its utility customers that have fallen into arrears during the last two months under the state’s stay-at-home order. Those who cannot pay their past bills or make arrangements to gradually eliminate the debt will have their services disconnected.
The move comes as the city finds itself struggling to pay vendors and bills because of the drop in utility consumption overall during the shutdown. According to Chief Administrative Officer Avis Gutekunst, the city’s utility billing dropped by $225,000 in March.
“Why was billing down?” asked Legal Counsel Allan Durand. “We sent out $225,000 less in bills?”
“From February to March, we collected $200,000 less,” Gutekunst said. “We usually bill about $450,000 a month. It jumped to $600,000 something in March, then when it came around to April it came back down. I think it was just because your businesses were shut down.”
Gutekunst attributed the decrease not only to the drop in business utilities, but also the shut down of schools and other public facilities.
She said that the number of delinquent accounts due to the COVID-19 hiatus on disconnection of utilities had not increased noticeably.
“How many accounts are behind?” asked District 1 Councilman Mike Fuselier.
“Most are about two months behind,” said Billing Supervisor Carolyn Murdock. “No more than normal.”
“Everybody made a ton of money on this COVID deal,” said Mayor Pro Tem Craig Prosper. “Most are making more money than they ever had. They’ve got full benefits. They’ve got stimulus money. If they don’t want to work with you to make a payment plan, then we start disconnecting them.”
“How many of those delinquent accounts are from COVID?” Fuselier asked. “It’s like having a skiing accident and saying everyone involved died from COVID. I think we need to reinstate our disconnect policy immediately. If they have a COVID issue, this council will bend over backward to help them. But we can do that on a case-by-case basis.”
“I agree,” said District 4 Councilman Juma Johnson. “We can take them case by case. We will work with those who need aid, and start to disconnect the others.”
On a positive note, the council heard from a tour guide who hopes to set up business giving tours along Bayou Teche. Wendy Thibodeaux said she was a 30-year resident who had done tours on Lake Martin for the last year until the launch there was closed to boat traffic.
“It’s a nice job,” she said. “I enjoy being on the water, showing people around.”
Thibodeaux said she had recently been asked to give tours in Breaux Bridge when it occurred to her that she could offer tours in her hometown.
“I thought I’d give it a shot,” Thibodeaux said. “I thought about putting up signs, temporary ones that I’d remove on a daily basis.”
To help out, she asked the council for permission to place the sign near the floating dock at Evangeline Oak and for the city to allow access to the public restrooms at the Acadian Heritage Museum.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Fuselier said. “The more we have to offer in St. Martinville the better. I think that our part of the Bayou Teche is the prettiest anywhere.”
The council also discussed appointing members to reconstitute the city’s civil service board. “The Chamber of Commerce has recommended three members,” said Fuselier. “Robert Chevalier has agreed to serve representing the District Attorney’s Office. City employees, except for police, will have to hold an election to name their representative. And the council has to elect one.”
Mayor Melinda Mitchell said she had three names — Blake Douet, Lance Laviolette and Carol Frederick — but she still had to interview Laviolette.
“I have an interview scheduled with him tomorrow,” Mitchell said.
Fuselier made a motion to appoint Carol Frederick as the council representative, but Mitchell protested.
“I have an interview with Mr. Laviolette tomorrow, and then I can make a recommendation,” she said.
“We gave you two weeks, Mayor,” Fuselier said. “I make a motion that we appoint Carol Frederick to the board.”
Durand said he would recommend putting off the appointment until he could get an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office determining whether the council could only vote on candidates the mayor recommended or if they could reject her candidates in favor of their own.
“It’s not clear under our ordinances and charter,” Durand said. “It says ‘upon recommendation of the mayor.’”
“In the 24 years I have sat on this council, we have always had the option to replace the mayor’s recommendation if there were not enough votes for their appointee,” Fuselier said.
“If that is how it has been interpreted, then that is how it should be done,” Durand said.
“If you vote my recommendation down, fine,” Mitchell said. “Then you have to keep voting on the same person until I bring someone else.”
District 3 Councilman Dennis Paul Williams opted for a third party’s decision.
“Let’s get the legal opinion,” Williams said. “Let’s make sure we are doing everything fair.”
In other business, the council agreed to advertise for sealed bids for salvage of city vehicles. The council also moved to go into executive session to discuss the job performance of police officer Nick LeBouef. Upon coming out of the executive session, Durand said LeBouef had tendered his resignation.
“The result was that the officer has resigned,” Durand said. “The council has accepted his resignation.”