Sewer Committee meets in secret, west bank water rates increase

Tuesday marked the inaugural meeting of the recently impaneled “Sewer Committee,” charged with negotiating against (or with, depending on which members are controlling the proceeding) a four-company consortium powered by Bernhard Capital Partners.  58 minutes of the 1:08:11 conclave was spent in Executive Session with legal (so much for transparency), leaving just enough time for election of the Chairman and Vice Chairwoman; and a vote “to reengage with Ascension Sewer, LLC to continue negotiations on their proposal.”

Ken Dawson, erstwhile Chief Administrative Officer in two former administrations (we’re unsure of his current title pending production of a records request), was elected to chair the six-member committee by acclimation.  Chairing the full council, Teri Casso was elected to the second spot.  Rounding out the panel are CAO John Diez along with three council members; Joel Robert, Dal Waguespack, and Corey Orgeron.

Apparently the brainchild of Orgeron, the representative for Prairieville’s District 4 who has exhibited little to no grasp of Utilities matters in his 37-day tenure, the committee’s business will be conducted parallel to President Clint Cointment’s efforts toward an alternative sewer treatment proposal.

No vote on sewer deal; and none scheduled as Cointment presents alternative

Orgeron was appointed to chair the council’s Utilities Committee by Casso. His predecessor, Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, was the most ardent council proponent of Ascension Sewer who occupied the Utilities chair in 2019.  On January 23 Orgeron said:

“I have concerns over taking on any other options, looking at anything else until we comply with the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement (approved by the former council on May 16, 2019).  I feel that we need to address that since, you know, it’s a contract the parish has entered into.”

That agreement includes the provision, “(F)or a period of two (2) years, the Company (Ascension Sewer) shall have the exclusive right to negotiate an agreement with the District (Ascension Consolidated Utilities District #2) to construct, manage, operate and maintain the System.”

Who’s side is Orgeron on, anyway?

After the Sewer Committee wrapped it up it was time for the regularly scheduled meeting of the Utilities Committee.  We note that no agenda was ever made available on the parish website (so much for transparency), not that any momentous business was taken up.

Utilities Director Gavin Fleming offered the monthly “Water Report” for Parish Utilities of Ascension (formerly Peoples Water Company until the parish purchased the dilapidated west bank water plant and its even more dilapidated piping for $5.9 million in September of 2016).

Fleming can be seen at left, looking over Ken Dawson’s shoulder.

Fleming had to explain why monthly water rates are increasing to District 1 (Donaldsonville) Councilman Alvin Thomas, or try to do so.  34,000 feet of pipe, much of it outmoded galvanized pipe, “needs to be changed” according to the Utilities Director whose tenure commenced three years after the purchase of Peoples Water.  $17 million in USDA loan/grant funding was made available (just under $10 million in the loan) with a caveat, there has to be a dedicated revenue source to repay the debt.

Chairman Orgeron, as lost as one would expect from a Casso-appointed Utilities Chair, wondered if there was a plan in place to “determine the necessity of rate increases” and whether that information could be provided.

Daniel estimates $25-30 million to replace PUA pipes; federal grant could fund the worst of it

Even prior to the September 2016 acquisition of Peoples Water it was known that rate increases would be necessary to fund needed improvements.  Ken Dawson put the number at 30%, still better than the 50% monthly rate increase that Peoples Water was going to request from the Public Service Commission had the deal fell through.  Peoples Water “could have gotten a 60% increase” according to Dawson.

“The rates had been static for quite some time,” added Director Fleming.

He would go on to explain that rehabilitation of the water plant, “redoing the lines and distribution system” will be accomplished with the USDA funding.  User rates had already seen one increase in August with others necessary to pay off the loan.