The two highest ranking members in President Clint Cointment’s administration appeared before the Parish Council’s Utilities Committee on Monday in the ongoing wastewater treatment saga. Infrastructure Director Ken Dawson and Chief Administrative Officer John Diez delivered a sobering, and definitive, message; impairment of Ascension’s waterways is attributable to Individual Treatment Units (ITU) more so than those subdivision plants operated by Ascension Wastewater Treatment and a few other private companies. The administration sought 120 days and adequate funding to complete a proposal to address ITUs, which was rejected by the committee.
The committee, except for Joel Robert, also declined a separate $14,150 allocation for engineering services on the ITU proposal.
Is all this fuss about fixing Ascension’s impaired waterways or is it about something else?
The administration is cognizant of potential blowback from ITU owners used to paying nothing to dispose of their sewage, treated or not, into the nearest roadside ditch and, eventually, one of those precarious waterways (Bayou Manchac and the Lower Amite are already impaired, Blind and New Rivers are well on their way to impairment according Louisiana DEQ, LDH and EPA). Ken Dawson presented a 2016 DEQ finding that “numerous individual package plants that are discharging directly or indirectly into Bayou Manchac, the majority of which are located in Ascension Parish.” According to those alphabetic agencies those ITUs are experiencing a 50% failure rate.
Presented as a solution separate and apart from a Bernhard Capital Partners-controlled consortium’s (Ascension Sewer, LLC) $215 million proposal, which does nothing to specifically address ITU (septic systems and MoDads), it never had a chance. There is a section in its rejected December 2019 proposal where Ascension Sewer offers to “establish a program for the periodic inspection of (ITUs) within its Service Area…(and) to implement a billing system.” That would not encompass a large percentage of Ascension’s ITUs.
Two committee members, Councilmen Aaron Lawler and Corey Orgeron, have been in the bag for Bernhard Capital Partners (BCP) since the beginning. Nothing that transpired on Monday could dissuade anyone from that commonly-espoused belief as they led the charge in rejecting the administration’s proposal out-of-hand. There is a reason Chairwoman Teri Casso stacked the Utilities Committee deck in BCP’s favor.
Lawler and Orgeron, who chairs Utilities, were less than receptive to the ITU presentation. Orgeron, making as little sense as usual, complained about the administration’s request for 120 days and $200,000 to complete the analysis. Continually referring to the arbitrarily imposed BCP deadline of July 31 to accept its offer, Orgeron would say:
“Give us apples to apples. I’ll be frank, we’re looking at, if we pass this resolution, and move it to the full council, and there’s a vote, then 120 days; we have just told this private entity, ‘forget it. We’re not going to follow your deadline.'”
Did Bernhard Capital Partners vote Orgeron into the District 4 council seat? He did not explain why he thinks it wise to allow Ascension Parish to be held hostage to an arbitrary deadline imposed by BCP in a May 26 letter:
“The parties will make best faith efforts to obtain expedited Parish Council approval of a mutually-acceptable C&O Agreement. Unless otherwise agreed, this Proposal shall terminate and become null and void unless (Ascension Parish), Ascension Sewer and NWI enter into a definitive agreement on or before July 31, 2020. The termination of this Proposal shall not have any effect on the continued effectiveness and enforceability of the CEA.”
The referenced CEA attempts to prohibit the parish from negotiating with any other entity for 24 months from its execution date, May 20, 2019. The council members who voted for it could be plausibly accused of malfeasance for giving the consortium that amount of leverage. BCP has insisted it will go forward with or without participation/funding from the parish, so why should taxpayer money be infused into the proposal?
The BCP proposal, once rejected…
does nothing to address the ongoing impairment of Ascension waterways by those (estimated to be) 20,000 ITUs.
“Pound for pound (the ITU program) is the most effective solution that we have,” declared CAO John Diez. “These ITUs drop 10.6 billion 16 oz. bottles of raw sewage in our waterways a year; that’s more than 2,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. If you could do one thing to clean our waterways, this is it.”
Which assumes that Utilities Chairman Corey Orgeron and his council allies have environmental concerns foremost in mind. Nothing in their actions heretofore bolsters such an assumption.
Diez went on:
“It boils down to competition. One of the biggest problems we had with the initial sewer negotiations was that we signed a CEA that would not allow us to compete. If nothing else, let parish government compete with Bernhard Capital so, at least, we have two proposals; two competing ideas that are keeping everybody honest.”
Good luck with that. The shadowy faux-negotiations with BCP last year were anything but honest, a complete sham by council members ready to do the deal “at all costs.” Curious that those members who survived the October 2019 election are suddenly cost conscious.
Orgeron, who ousted the most ardent BCP sewer proponent, claimed to have criticized spending parish funds to evaluate the consortium’s plan in 2019. He and Lawler balked at the administration’s request as Orgeron analogized:
“One seller is bringing us apples. If we don’t like their apples, then we start shopping for more apples.”
CAO Diez asked, “How do you know if you like their apples unless you’ve got another set of apples to compare them to?’
“The taste,” Orgeron replied, failing to grasp that $215 million is a steep price to pay for apples (and arguably ineffective sewer treatment).
Ascension paid over $600,000 for legal and technical expertise in evaluating the BCP proposal in 2019. And that for a plan which, if Dawson and Diez are correct, fails to address the more acute problem, ITU?
The administration’s plan would come with a cost to those individual owners. Beginning at $11 dollars per month, increasing by 25 cents each year for four years so that the rate would be $12.00 per month. Then the increase would be 10 cents per year over the next decade resulting in a monthly rate of $13.00. Monday’s meeting packet, according to the administration, misstated the fee schedule increases to occur each month as opposed to annually.
“The monthly fees to each owner of an OWTS shall consist of the cost to inspect, sample, monitor, collect fees, administer program, low-income assistance and a fund to offset connections to a centralized treatment system plus a reserve as required. The initial collection of these fees shall not begin before the approval of the Program Manual by the Utilities Committee.”