In the months preceding his inauguration Clint Cointment attempted negotiation with Ascension Sewer, LLC, seeming to garner concessions in the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement (CEA) aimed at bringing sanitary sewer to Ascension’s east bank. Council Chairwoman Teri Casso pulled the plug, but Cointment (and a standing room only crowd of citizens) convinced the lame duck council to temporarily reject the plan on December 20. On January 23, 17 days into his tenure as Ascension’s chief executive, President Cointment presented what appeared to be an alternative to the $215,128,764.86 agreement proposed by the Bernhard Capital Partners-backed consortium.
On Friday the parish president shared a more detailed, though still preliminary, ten-year/three-phased plan in stark contrast to the Bernhard proposal. Unlike Bernhard’s proposal, which is limited to the 16,000 (or so) parish customers of Ascension Wastewater Treatment with no intention of adding any more, 19,000 Individual Treatment Units (ITU) would be a significant part of the parish model (more on that below). An existing treatment plant in Hillaryville will be improved with a new facility built in Geismar, west of Hwy 73 along the River Road and away from residential areas.
The Cointment plan calls for $40 million from Ascension Parish coffers ($100 million plan), as opposed to the $75.8 million demanded by Bernhard ($215 million plan). Instead of the $57.90 beginning monthly user fee envisioned by Bernhard (automatically increasing by 4% annually for ten years and topping out in the mid-$80 range), Cointment’s plan would set beginning monthly fees at $45 (with annual increases of one dollar for ten years resulting in $55 per month, ultimately).
Without private investment; no corresponding guaranteed 8% return on same; nor murky Operator Termination Fee/prepayment penalty and cost provisions, Ascension taxpayers would not be on the hook for who knows how many hundreds of millions of dollars under the Cointment plan. There are other advantages to being a municipal entity which enjoys:
- The ability to set rates, keeping them low
- Complete control of costs and timetable
- Ability to obtain federal and state grants
- Bonding capacity (tax free municipal bonds)
- Authority to mandate connection to the system
- Authority to adjust ordinances to facilitate expansion of infrastructure
And, to hear the parish president tell it, the Bernhard proposal would be less effective in achieving the ultimate objective; cleaning Bayou Manchac which is already impaired, and preventing other waterways from being declared so. Prominent in the Cointment plan are those 19,000 ITUs. To quote the Preliminary Plan:
“The continued increase in wastewater service demand compounds the existing problem of aging privately owned and operated treatment plants and sewer septic systems that many of the Parish residents currently utilize. A large fraction of these systems are at or near their capacity, in many instances discharging improperly or poorly treated wastewater to the local surface waters via the storm drain system. This poses potential environmental problems and regulatory enforcement actions for the Parish.”
There will be monitoring costs ($11/month to start, up to $13/month at the end of ten years) on those individual systems. President Cointment pointed to the commonly-held belief that those systems are primary polluters in justification.
According to successive administrations, going back nearly three decades, severe regulatory action in the form of onerous consent decrees are a matter of when, not if. Confidential discussions with Louisiana’s DEQ, if three parish presidents and just as many parish councils are to be believed, have brought home the sobering reality; Ascension Parish’s situation is near critical. Comprehensive wastewater treatment measures are going to be undertaken, whether parish officials want to or not.
“It’s not like I want to be in the sewer business,” President Cointment assured. “I’d prefer to focus on roads and drainage, but we’re at the crossroads and I am going to do everything in my power to protect the citizens of our parish against unreasonable rates. Every dollar we spend on wastewater treatment is a dollar we can’t spend on roads and drainage, or recreation to enhance our quality of life.”
Cointment has been the most consistent, and vocal, critic of Bernhard’s proposed agreement. In large part that criticism has cited inflated costs and the parish’s inability to exercise meaningful oversight. How does his plan propose to meet the challenge?
“The overall planning area is the entire unincorporated area of East Bank Ascension Parish…(which)…was divided into distinct geographic basins or wastewater service areas. This approach follows conventional engineering practice of siting wastewater infrastructure in a hydraulically effective manner.
Priority has been given to the more populated areas of the Parish. The improvements proposed herein reflect a first step to initiate regionalization with the consolidation of parish customers and development of a main corridor…to transmit sewer flows south to a consolidated treatment plant discharging into the Mississippi River.”
Phase I (3 Years/$30 million)
- Institute ITU Program to repair systems to restore discharges to design parameters (projected to reduce Biochemical Oxygen Demand by 3,000,000 lbs. annually)
- Temporary treatment expansion for Hwy 42 corridor at the Oak Grove treatment facility until connection made to Hwy 73, then to Mississippi River ($1.5 million)
- Upgrade Hillaryville facility to treat sewer south of I-10; install pipes to handle Hwy 22 region while preparing for ultimate connection to Cornerview area, then Hwy 73 force main
- All new subdivisions (including commercial) south of I-10 served by Hillaryville plant
- $10 million from the parish’s water/wastewater construction fund (as opposed to the $15.8 million required in the Bernhard proposal)
- $11/month fee to inspect 19,000 ITU systems
- $20 million from the US Army Corps of Engineers (25% matching funds required which can be paid out of DEQ loan)
- $20 million from that low-interest DEQ loan (of the $60 million made available to Ascension Parish in December 2013)
- $5 quarterly franchise fee from AWT and two other private treatment companies (pursuant to an ordinance passed years ago but never enforced)
- $45-47 monthly rate on existing parish customers (approximately 2,200 according to Cointment)
Phase II (4 Years/$30 million)
- Complete Geismar treatment plant, expansion of Hillaryville facility
- Connect customers along Hwy 73 to collection system
- Connect new plant to Cornerview Rd and Hwy 73’s existing infrastructure (the parish already installed approximately $15 million of pipe along Hwys 73 and 42)
- Continue hookup customers in the Hwy 22/Hwy 44 area
- Anticipated $20 million carried over from Phase I
- $12/month fee to inspect 19,000 ITU systems (see above)
- $5 quarterly franchise fees (see above)
- Additional request of $10 million from Louisiana DEQ
- $48-50 monthly rate on expanded customer base
Phase III (3 years/$40 million)
- Complete connection of Hwy 42 corridor customers (temporarily treated by expanded Oak Grove facility)
- Continue building sewer network connecting Hillaryville and Geismar plants
- Additional grant money (federal and state)
- $13/month fee to inspect 19,000 ITU systems
- $5 quarterly franchise fees
- $51-55 monthly rate on expanded customer base
- Bond monies to satisfy any shortfall to accomplish goals
Once the system is built out there are state and parish statutory authority, as well as an existing consent decree, which mandates private systems tie in. That would include all those systems being operated by the Bernhard-owned AWT.