A multi-year project came to a close Friday morning, as the city of Walker invited the public to view their recently opened city hall on Aydell Lane.
On a beautiful, sunny day light poured into the new, three story building as guests were treated to bright rooms, stone floors, and high ceilings. Walker will utilize two of the three stories and take up roughly double the square footage they had at their old city hall location.
"We're thinking 20, 30 years down the road," Mayor Jimmy Watson said. "(Walker officials) wanted this building to last."
The plans began in 2018, when the idea of a new city hall was tossed around by city officials and the city council. By February, 2019, the city had narrowed the prospects down to two sites - one off Aydell Lane, the other behind the Sherwin Williams location on Highway 447.
Aydell Lane's 4.7 acre location, which the city also purchased in February, won. According to Mayor Watson, Aydell's location was 'better' and did not require any clearing of debris or timber. There was also the small, connecting lane in the back with Stine's Lumber Yard to provide more ingress and egress access. The land was purchased from General Contractor John Blount, who also constructed the new city hall.
So, when council passed three ordinances to start the ball rolling on a new city hall.
The first ordinance authorized the purchase of the 4.72 acres in the 13000 block of Aydell Lane. The second ordinance transferred $680,000 from the Enterprise Fund to the General Fund to pay for the land. The third ordinance moved $6.5 million into the General Fund to pay for the construction and furnishing of the new City Hall.
The $6.5 million was acquired via bond, with the help of the Louisiana Local Government Environmental Facilities and Community Development Authority.
The bonds will be paid off over 30 years, increasing the General Fund bond interest expenses by $241,000 and reducing the general long-term debt $120,000 in the first year, according to the proposed ordinance. The interest rate is 4 percent, which the mayor called a “very good rate. The city has an A-minus rating, in the top tier of bond ratings.”
Labarre & Associates was the architect firm who spearheaded the project, with assistance from engineering firm Forte & Tablada. The original goal was the end of 2020 for an opening, however COVID-19 delays pushed the ribbon cutting back. The building was designed for growth, with the top (third) floor being leased by two companies which are currently in negotiation with the city.
Should Walker need that space, they will provide notice and end the lease, Mayor Watson said.
According to Watson, who made comments before the ribbon was cut on Friday, May 14, 2021, the city owes much of it's financial solvency and the construction of the new city hall facility to their 'robust' gas system. Walker has one of the largest in the state, according to Chief of Staff Jamie Etheridge, and extends well north into Watson and to the parish line with St. Helena, as well as points south.
Walker also provides natural gas for Waste Management's fueling station in the Walker Industrial Park.
The city adjusted all of their utility rates in 2013, during Rick Ramsey's administration, after sales taxes dipped almost 17% alongside the completion of Our Lady of the Lake - which utilized Stine's Lumber Yard to acquire most of their materials, providing a boom for the local collections.
However, the administration before Ramsey's had budgeted as if those sales taxes would stay in place, which they did not.
Each utility rate was affected differently.
Gas dropped from a $9.60 usage fee to $8.25, with $9 per thousand cubic feet used afterward. However, the free 500 cubic feet of gas per month was removed.
According to a study done on Walker gas consumption by Baton Rouge based SJB Group, the estimated increase to city revenue in the first year would be nearly $850,000.
Water took on an $8.50 charge for residential customers on their first 3,000 gallons, with a $2.50 per 1,000 gallons after. The usage charge will rose to $2 per year into 2015.
Commercial rates are $34 for the first 3,000 gallons, and $2.50 for every 1,000 gallons after.
In a study by Louisiana Rural Water company, the city would see an increase of $148,000 in the first year, $250,000 in the second year, and $350,000 in the third.
The sewer rates decreased by $3 across the board from the rates presented at the June 10, 2013 meeting. Residential sewer rates started at $15.75 for the first 3,000 gallons and $1 per 1,000 gallons after. The first 3,000 gallon rate will rose $1 per year until 2015, and the 1,000 gallon fee will rose 50 cents per year until 2017.
The grinder station rates started at $14.25 for the first 3,000 gallons, and $1 per extra 1,000. The commercial rates begin at $18.50 for the first 3,000 gallons and $.5 after.
At the time, Walker was struggling with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to get in line with sewer regulations. Progress had been made through Ramsey's administration, but it wasn't until 2015 that the city began receiving clearance marks from the governing body.
Even after the rate increase, according to a study also done by Louisiana Rural Water, Walker’s sewer system was still in the red roughly $400,000.
The garbage rates were raised to $13.17 for residential and $8.67 for seniors, to be brought in line with increased rates from Waste Management. Those rate increases, which are based on the Consumer Price Index, had not yet been passed on to consumers.