Is the effort to build east bank regional wastewater treatment infrastructure a competition between Ascension Parish and a Bernhard Capital Partners-backed consortium; or is it a partnership? Four months on the job, delayed and distracted by a pandemic dominating all things, President Clint Cointment proposed an alternative Preliminary Plan to that consortium’s (Ascension Sewer, LLC) $215 million proposal. An ambitious Parish Council Utilities Committee agenda scheduled competing presentations which failed to materialize on Tuesday.
The consortium failed to deliver its current proposal to the six-member Sewer Negotiation Team impaneled by Utilities Chairman Corey Orgeron. That proposal was due on May 13 pursuant to the team’s April 30 video conference. The Bernhard consortium withheld its proposal after President Cointment unveiled his plan through multiple media outlets last week.
NOTE: National Water Infrastructure (NWI) is the corporate entity formed by the Bernhard faction to acquire Ascension Wastewater Treatment (AWT), the largest private provider in the parish (and the state). AWT is part of Ascension Sewer. What’s in a name? The number, as in customers to fund the project, is the more important question.
But NWI will not present its proposal unless/until it receives details of the Cointment Preliminary Plan. Specifically, it wants; “All copies of the engineering data and financial analysis that formed the basis for the alternate plan presented by parish officials.” Which did not sit all that well with the parish president.
“We’re supposed to spend taxpayer dollars to help NWI tailor its proposal? Their proposal should stand on its own,” Cointment responded. “They can ask for the moon…(but) what’s public and what’s not?”
He noted that all negotiations are being conducted behind closed doors in Executive Session. Parish employees, as Cointment added, “do not work for NWI.” The same cannot be said with confidence about certain of Ascension’s Parish Council where NWI has allies, Councilman Aaron Lawler chief among them.
“I’d like to see a list of what actually needs to be provided so we can make sure that they can get that,” Lawler carried NWI’s wastewater.
Council Chairwoman Teri Casso wondered if the information was a “public record” available to anyone filing a public records request. Casso went on to ponder whether the two-year exclusivity agreement executed in May of 2019 bound the parish to comply with NWI’s request.
NOTE: We read the entire agreement without finding any verbiage binding the parish to comply.
“We’re going to build a system…the premiere environmental water company in the State of Louisiana and beyond,” declared Jeff Baudier of Bernhard Capital Partners/Ascension Sewer/NWI on Tuesday. “And we’re going to start in Ascension Parish (with) 17,000 customers and growing.”
Baudier claimed “17,000 and growing” without explaining the alleged growth. All those existing customers were acquired with NWI’s acquisition of AWT but there has been no explanation of the purported customer base expansion. On October 8, 2019 Baudier told another Utilities Committee his company had no plans to connect any existing neighborhoods or individual treatment units to its system, relying instead on “all the future growth.”
For what it’s worth, there has not been a new neighborhood approved in Ascension Parish since October of 2018.
If NWI proceeds without the parish it will not have:
- Access to $60 million in Clean Water Act .95% interest loans
- $15.8 million from Ascension Water/Wastewater Construction money
- The power of Eminent Domain reserved to political subdivisions
- $16-20 million worth of pipe already in the ground along Hwy 42 and Hwy 73
- A guaranteed 8% return on investment
- A governing authority’s power to enact advantageous ordinances
- The power to force private systems onto its regional system
- The ability to access potential grant monies ($20 million or so from the Corps of Engineers with parish matching funds)
The point being, Ascension Parish is not without cards to play in this purported negotiation. But NWI does have Councilman Aaron Lawler (unsurprising given Lawler’s history of assisting corporate entities against his constituents).
The Prairieville councilman, somewhat confused and very confusing, would say of NWI’s request for information:
“To me, we only get the best deal if we have competition. If we are competing with somebody else and there are multiple people competing, and they see that there’s an alternative plan, we’re going to improve our chances of getting a better deal.
There has to have been some work done in (the administration’s) sewer plan. If there is, if that can lead to a better deal, let’s get that to them and move forward on this.”
How that fosters competition is a mystery. Lawler would, with Baudier’s assistance, go on to chastise the public for expecting monthly rates proposed by the Cointment plan:
$45 (per month in user fees) is totally unreasonable when you look at the subsidies (paid by the parish’s Ascension Consolidated Utilities District #2 to service approximately 2,000 customers). I would like a true cost of what it costs in Ascension Parish right now for our customers to get sewer. Everything the parish is subsidizing, what is the actual cost? It’s very high.
My concern is, there’s this thought in the public that, ‘Hey, 45 or 50 dollars is where it should be.’ We’ve seen the administration’s plan (beginning monthly rate of $45 increasing to $55 per month after a decade). Totally unreasonable when you look at the subsidies.”
On cue (?) Jeff Baudier interjected the numbers, claiming the actual cost is $158/month per customer while monthly fees are $42.50. That’s $115/month being subsidized for those 2,000 customers assuming Baudier’s numbers are accurate.
Back to Lawler who compared Ascension to Baton Rouge where customers pay $45/month, but with a .5% sales tax generating $46 million annually to subsidize fees. Baudier put the “effective rate” per Baton Rouge customer at $78 per month, still lower than the ending rate included in his outfit’s 2019 proposal.
Lawler called discussions over his 4+ year council tenure “borderline misrepresentation” which has deluded the public into believing:
“We should only be paying 50 bucks. That is just simply, it is distorting the public’s view of what to expect and what is reasonable in the long term. (The $78/month rate) is a much more realistic number. 50, 45, 50…that’s not realistic.”