Ascension Parish Council Utilities Committee recommended approval of an agreement to pay Ascension Wastewater Treatment (AWT) $306,200 on Wednesday in return for…what, exactly? A version of the agreement first appeared on a Utilities agenda in August of 2017, again in October, and every 2018 agenda culminating, finally, in a 4-1 vote to recommend approval to the full council last night. But what, exactly, is Ascension Parish buying?
William Daniel, Ascension’s newly-ratified Infrastructure Director assured, “We’re gonna own the facilities” back in February.
The contract read (and still reads):
“The capacity addition to Renaissance Treatment Plant is for the purpose of adding capacity for Hollows of Dutchtown (196 Lots), the Hwy 73 Homes (80 Lots), and the 1 Storage Facility (2 Bathrooms, 1 Employee)…For this amount of capacity at the Renaissance Treatment Plant, Ascension Parish shall make a one-time payment to AWT in the amount of $306,200.”
The verbiage is retained from 2017 though reconfigured in a document specifying the volume of “additional capacity” and designating “Impacted Areas” (defined as “the customers initially to be served” by AWT’s Renaissance treatment plant who do not reside in that subdivision). “‘Impacted areas’ shall mean the residential and commercial establishments (Customers) along and/or adjacent to certain sewage collection pipelines located east of Interstate 10 to Airline Highway and along Louisiana Highway 73.”
AWT owns and operates the Renaissance plant where it paid to add capacity over a year ago. Since May 1, 2017 it has treated sewer from Hollows of Dutchtown whose developer, apparently, paid nothing. How the Planning Commission approved the subdivision is a mystery…well, maybe not.
“We’re proposing to give $306,000 taxpayer dollars to a private company for something that we don’t acquire ownership of,” citizen Jeff Pettit interpreted the contract. “Y’all gotta be kidding.”
No one was pulling Pettit’s leg, though William Daniel took issue with Pettit’s assessment.
“Well, that couldn’t be 100% more incorrect, that last statement by Mr. Pettit…We are going to own it lock, stock and barrel,” Daniel assured. “No matter what happens in the future, that belongs to the parish. He (AWT) can’t move it, he can’t use it for somebody else. That belongs to us until the end of time or until we deem that we no longer need it.”
Glad Daniel cleared that up. But then, only moments later, William Daniel would say to the befuddlement of anyone within earshot…
“We are not giving a private citizen money to own something. We are buying capacity in a system that’s already in existence. It would be like saying you pay a construction company to build a road; it would not be his road. It’s still the road for the parish but we’re just paying somebody to build it.”
What the parish will actually acquire in return for that $306,200 payment to AWT is “161,000 gallons per day of sewer treatment capacity.” Is it possible to own an incorporeal asset “lock, stock, and barrel?”
“But we don’t own the plant,” opined Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee who cast the lone vote in opposition.
“We own 161,000 gallons of treatment,” William Daniel replied. “I think they are the same thing.“
Tim Hardy is the attorney hired specifically to guide the parish through the pitfalls concomitant with being “in the sewer treatment business.” Hardy assured that “capacity is a thing of value. It’s a thing; maybe not a physical structure but it’s a thing of value that can be purchased.” Thus, there is no constitutional prohibition to the agreement.
Maybe not a physical structure? What the heck was going on here? Councilman Oliver Joseph, in his inimitable style, explained it simply.
“It’s all about money; it’s always about money. Basically, we promise these people something and we need to deliver.”
Promises were made, deals were cut with “these people” which William Daniel inherited with his October 2017 hiring. Certain of the Council’s membership are aware of those deals, and others are not. What about the taxpaying citizenry of Ascension Parish?
“I am in no way suggesting that ‘purchasing capacity’ is illegal,” Councilman Satterlee responded to the William Daniel/Tim Hardy red herring. “What I am questioning strongly; whether it is wise and fiscally prudent to deal with a private company that has not dealt with us fairly in the past?”
Tom Pertuit of AWT was an integral part of Ascension Environmental, the ill-fated attempt at public-private sewer partnership intended to bring comprehensive sanitary sewer to the parish’s east bank in 2016. His customers are the backbone of any foray into the business because corresponding debt service will have to come out of user fees or…A TAX. With the prospect of regulatory action by Louisiana DEQ or the EPA looming, Pertuit “has us over a barrel.”
That is according to Councilman Benny Johnson, whose tenure as Utilities’ chair provided the perfect vantage point to observe it all firsthand.
“I would like to have seen us have a treatment facility (between Hwy 30 and the Mississippi River)” because the parish had to lay over two miles of sewer lines alongside Hwy 73, a condition of DOTD’s recent road improvement project. “But we don’t,” Johnson summarized several years of effort.
Where does Ascension go from here?
Johnson conceded that he has been less than happy with Tom Pertuit’s past negotiations, while commending the sewer treatment baron’s fairness on the current deal. He characterized the AWT agreement as “hopefully, a temporary situation” on the way to building Ascension’s very own treatment plant. An actual, physical, corporeal asset owned “lock, stock and barrel” by the parish.