Plaquemine mayor’s race: Gulotta, challenger Ramirez eye high city electricity rates

Deidre Cruse

Incumbent Plaquemine Mayor Mark A. “Tony” Gulotta and challenger, former city business manager James A. “Jimmy” Ramirez, both say they would seek  to lower city electricity bills.

Otherwise, Gulotta is running on his experience and cites a host of projects he is eager to finish, including the negotiation of a new lower-cost electrical supply, while Ramirez argues that it is time for a change.

“I’ve got plenty of experience, and I know how to get things done,” said Gulotta, seeking his fifth term as mayor. “The voters allowed me to get that experience.”

“After 16 years, I think it’s time for a change,” Ramirez said. “When you’ve been there that long, you begin to think you are the city.”

Ramirez cites few plans for projects over the next four years and makes few promises except that he will be accessible to voters and return every phone call.

“I’m not making any promises,” he said. “The only promises I’m making is to do what is right and not what’s best for my career. My first priority is to look at the utility system because I think something definitely needs to be done with our utility rates.”

A protest of August electricity bills, culminating in a march of some 60 people on City Hall last Friday, moved the utility rate issue to the forefront just ahead of the city elections.

Gulotta maintains that high natural gas prices and high usage pushed electrical bills to high levels. He charged that city council candidate Hebert Jefferson Sr. had made it a political issue.

“People cannot continue to afford these type of bills,” Ramirez said, citing one woman’s bills of $1,117 for her home and his firefighter son’s bill of $871 for the month. “Last week was not anything to do politically, it was financially.”

The challenger said he and other city residents were embarrassed when Gulotta told a Baton Rouge television reporter that part of the problem was the substandard housing in Plaquemine.

“I thought that was a bad choice of words,” Ramirez said.

He said his first priority would be to look at utility rates.

“I can’t make a promise, but I will look around,” Ramirez said. “...The [city] council will have to work on that – not the skateboard park or phase two or three of Waterfront Park. It has to be utilities.”

Gulotta said he is in negotiations with a local industry, which he would not name, that wants to produce lower-cost electricity from waste gas, a plan that has worked out well for the company at two Texas plants. The city, he said, would construct its own electrical transportation system from the plant.

“Probably the biggest thing I will do in my next term is negotiate a new electrical contract,” he said.

Over the past 10 years, Gulotta said he has come up with four “very solid contracts” only to see them stalled by Entergy. The city buys its electricity through the Louisiana Energy and Power Authority (LEPA), but the power is delivered over the only transmission lines currently available – Entergy’s.

“Transmission has always been an issue,” the mayor said. “[Entergy’s] [process is to study it for two or three years, and by that time the contract is dead.”

“We would build our own grid, build a new transformer at the substation at the power plant,” he said, a project that would require about two years of construction time.

“In a perfect scenario, we could be receiving some of this power in 2010,” he said last week. “This morning, we reached a major milestone because this company is owned by an individual company out of Texas. They gave the go-ahead...This is probably one of the biggest deals I will work.”

The industry would be able to supply the city’s base load of 15 megawatts, Gulotta said. The city would have to buy additional electricity to provide up to 25 megawatts during the day.

“It would mean possibly as much as a three-cent reduction in utility rates, which in the electricity business is huge out there,” he said. “This has not been an easy deal to negotiate.”

Gulotta said the city makes about three cents a kilowatt in profit to pay for the operation of the utility system, including line crews and storm damage.

Last month’s bills were so high, he said, because the city paid about 13 cents a kilowatt for the power.

“This month, it was about 10 cents a kilowatt,” the mayor said.

Ramirez said he heard city officials bragging last year about the record amount the city received from sales taxes.

“They should have put it on the side and paid for some of these increases, instead of making citizens pay for these high rates. You don’t just spend every penny you get.”

Ramirez also criticized Gulotta and the city council for giving a discount to people who pay their utility bills after the 20th of the month by waiving the three percent late fee.

“If they wanted to do something for all the citizens, they should have said people who pay from the first to the 20th can reduct the three percent. Everybody benefits, not just those who pay late.”

He also claimed that Morgan City, another LEPA city, does not have the high fuel adjustment rate that Plaquemine does.

Ramirez was the city’s business manager for eight years. He later was human resources director for the Iberville Parish Council for two years, and now is involved in Physician’s Imaging, which opened in Plaquemine in December.

He also just celebrated his 40th year as a volunteer firefighter for the city.

“I’m not the oldest, said Ramirez, who is 58, “but nobody has been fighting fires as long as I have. I have no intention of stopping once I become the mayor.”

Ramirez said he has thought of running for mayor since his time as city business manager. He said he seriously considered thinking about running for mayor four years ago, when city officials were discussing one of the electrical contracts.

“It was in the paper that the mayor and the council were going to do something about utility rates,” Ramirez said. “Then my wife was diagnosed with cancer.” She was facing six months of chemotherapy.

He decided to take the plunge this year, and filed papers to run on the last day of qualifying.

“I never heard another word about rate reductions,” Ramirez said. “My wife is in full remission, and I think it’s the right time.”

“I’m not saying I’m more qualified,” he said. “I’m saying that after 16 years, it’s time for a change...When he was elected 16 years ago, he had no qualifications. He came from a construction business.”

Gulotta, whose parents both served as Plaquemine city council members, spent his 50th birthday trying to get the city’s electrical system reconstructed after Hurricane Gustav.

He said he is seeking re-election because there are a lot of projects that he and the Board of Selectmen are working on that he wants to finish.

“The sewer plant is the biggest,” he said. “It’s the biggest infrastructure project in Plaquemine in a long, long time...IT should last the city for at least 40 years.”

Gulotta said he and city officials went around Louisiana and Mississippi looking at plant designs, and found one that is simple and easy to operate.

The first part of the sewerage project – a new trunk line that will carry effluent to the Mississippi River, instead of Bayou Plaquemine -- is ready to go, pending U. S. Army Corps of Engineers’ permission to put the line through the river levee, he said.

City officials have pledged their part of a new one-cent sales tax to pay for the trunk line and the new plant.

The mayor said he hopes to find the money -- $1 million to $1.5 million – to do Phase 3 of the Bayou Plaquemine Waterfront Park. Phase 3 includes converting the old Nadler Foundry into an open air pavillion, a facility the city could have used to feed electrical crews who came in from Oklahoma and Kansas to get the lights back on after  the hurricane, he said.

“The park has put a lot of pride into the City of Plaquemine,” Gulotta said. “It’s kind of turned into our new town square. It was in front of Old City Hall, but it was eaten up by the river.”

Gulotta said he also is looking to start a new road program late next year.

“We did manage to pay our road bonds off [four years early],” he said, referring to the bonds he inherited from his predecessor for a citywide overlay program in the early 1990s.

That freed up the proceeds of a two-third cent sales tax passed in 1991, Gulotta said. The city’s engineers have estimated it would take $17 million to rebuild all the city’s roads, as an alternative to a quick-fix overlay program that would not last.

“We got a Triple-A bond rating last month,” the mayor said. “We have good borrowing power, but maybe not enough for $17 million [for roads].”

Ramirez said he understood the road program was already “on the map.”

“Basically, I have to get in there and see what’s what,” he said. “...I’ll look at that. I’m very concerned about the financial shape that the City of Plaquemine is in right now.”

Gulotta seemed to think the city’s biggest current financial challenge was collecting money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the recovery from Hurricane Gustav.

The damages could amount to $2.5 million to $3 million by the time everything is accounted for, he said.

“We’re lucky we have our renewal account [in City Light & Water],” he said, noting that the federal government is slow to pay. “We deposit money in that account every month. We have $1.2 million in it, which has always been enough, but not for this storm.”

“If I do a sixth term, I assure you I’ll still be dealing with FEMA on Gustav,” he said. “It took five years for Andrew. Katrina is still not closed out. We’ve got the lion’s share of the money, but the case is still open. They still owe us $25,000 to $30,000.”

With every storm, FEMA changes the rules about what is eligible for reimbursement, Gulotta said.

“We will fight and hang in there till we get our money,” he siad. “They’re going to spend as much on paper as we did on power lines. Sad but true.”