5-3 Council vote tasks Parish President to negotiate with only sewer respondent

Kent Schexnaydre

Five Councilmen voted to “move forward with the Public/Private partnership concept” in Ascension’s 40-year quest for comprehensive east bank sewer at a Special Meeting Tuesday in Gonzales.  They were opposed by three council members who objected to increased monthly user fees and the fact that a single plan was submitted in response to the parish’s Request for Proposal.  Four-fifths of the majority eagerly authorized the next president’s administration to negotiate a contract while Utilities Chairman Benny Johnson’s yea vote was begrudging.

Council discussion commenced with the naysayers:

District 9 Councilman Todd Lambert

“It’s hard for me to buy into it,” began Todd Lambert who cited monthly user fees, anticipated to be $67, and the potential for some residents to face up to $8,000 in up front fees.

Those with private Mo-Dads or septic tanks could be charged a fee to abandon their systems and initial “hook up” fees.  The hook up fee alone is estimated at $4,500.  Those on a community system will get off, relatively, cheap avoiding the abandonment cost.

“A lot of people in the parish live paycheck to paycheck and to come up with these kinds of fees all at one time, it’s going to be hard on them,” Lambert explained.  “I know we have to do something.  Before long we’re going to be mandated” by state and/or federal environmental regulatory authorities.

He did concede that the up front fees could be tacked onto monthly user fees incrementally but was, ultimately, unmoved from his position; even after legal counsel, O’Neil Parenton, explained that the authorization to negotiate bound the parish to nothing.

“From here we will begin contract negotiations to see if we can satisfy the council and, really, the public because y’all represent them on whether the ultimate contract is something the parish of Ascension wants to enter into.  The decision tonight is whether you want to pursue negotiations with this group,” Parenton assured.

Details will have to be worked out for as much as six months and Utilities Committee will be involved in the particulars.  The final agreement, if there ever is one, may look quite a bit different than what was proposed by SCS Management on behalf of Ascension Environmental, the team assembled by GSA Consulting Engineers.

Which did little to allay the minority faction’s two concerns.  In addition to Lambert’s fear that prohibitive fees will overburden some of Ascension’s less well off, Bryan Melancon added:

“It is concerning to me that we were only able to get one group because it was the only group that had some advance knowledge because they were involved in the process from the beginning.  Not enough people, with enough information, to put a package together.  We may have a better plan out there if they had more time.”

Melancon mentioned that he had been contacted by multiple firms seeking an extension of the 60 day window from the RFP’s issuance on September 10 but would identify none.

Randy Clouatre

Randy Clouatre

“I was contacted by (only) one firm that wanted a six month extension,” countered non-voting Council Chairman Randy Clouatre.  “They didn’t allude to me that they were going to have a better price.”

Clouatre also assured that there will be ample opportunity for the public to express its desire.

Councilwoman Teri Casso was “very disappointed at the lack of competitive proposals” as was Benny Johnson who would ultimately vote to proceed, assuaged by Utilities Committee’s future participation in ironing out contractual details.

Utilities will have to start convening again since the last regularly scheduled meeting was eight months ago.

No such reluctance plagued the remainder of Tuesday’s majority.

“The time for modern sewer, ladies and gentlemen, in Ascension Parish has come,” declared sewer’s most persistent champion, Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee.  “We have been at this precipice, this moment in history three times now.”

Estimates for an early 1990s attempt at sewer topped out at $100 million.  Anticipated costs for comprehensive east bank sewer now range from $700 million to $1 billion.

“It would be irresponsible to procrastinate any further and to allow that number to climb any more,” Satterlee insisted.  “I’ve spent four years trying to bring sewer to Ascension Parish…I’ve read this proposal three or four times, at least the most pertinent parts.”

The former college professor evinced extensive experience in producing, assessing, and judging RFPs before declaring the subject one “well-written, thorough and, most important, doable.”

And the proposal satisfied the review committee impaneled to ensure it was responsive and met RFP requirements that Ascension Environmental can “Design, Build, Operate, and Finance” the system.  Satterlee found the opposition argument that additional groups should have been afforded more time less than persuasive.

“We would all like to have seen more than one proposal,” he conceded.

Originally the window to respond to September 10’s RFP was 30 days but the full Council extended it to 60 days. The only publicized request for extension was made by letter dated October 21 from Hartman Engineering’s Jared Monceaux to all Council members.

“I met with the writer of that letter requesting six months,” Doc Satterlee avoided identifying anyone by name. “I asked that gentleman point blank, ‘is it gonna be a problem as some of my colleagues think it will be?’  Admittedly, he said it’d be a little more difficult but ‘No, Doc, I agree.  We have boiler-plates; we have other things we can use.  We’ll be there.'”

“I said, ‘Sir, I’m looking forward to reading your proposal.’  I didn’t read it.  What I read instead was a letter requesting we go six months,” which Doc Satterlee resisted vehemently.

Kent Schexnaydre was just as adamant in supporting the proposal, offering even greater historical perspective reaching into the 1970s.  Four decades ago sewer could have been realized, and 95% funded by federal and state monies, according the District 2 Councilman who opted not to seek reelection.

Schexnaydre asserted that west bank Ascension has sewer because it passed a 10-mil tax to get it.  Poorer areas on the east bank, Hillaryville/Darrow, have already dismantled individual systems while his relatively affluent neighborhood has open ditches where raw sewage remains.

“At some point in time, when we have an outbreak in Ascension Parish of some type of water-borne disease, then we’re going to do something about this,” he warned, adding that another decade delay will result in substantially higher costs.

Something Kent Schexnaydre, Doc Satterlee, Oliver Joseph, Travis Turner, and a reluctant Benny Johnson voted to avoid.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Todd Lambert would concede.  “This, probably, is the best plan.”

Even so, he would not support further negotiations.