West bank councilmen question suspension of work on PUA water system

District 1 Councilman Alvin “Coach” Thomas

When a previous Ascension Parish Council approved $5.9 million to purchase the dilapidated (some of its pipes had been in the ground nearly a century) Peoples Water Company there were more than a few critics in the public.  The sale was completed in September of 2016, five months after then Utilities Committee chairman, former Councilman Benny Johnson’s halfhearted endorsement of the company beset by lawsuits, boil advisories and regulatory action from Louisiana Department of Health.  Turns out the people (critical citizenry, not the water company) were right as President Clint Cointment’s administration suspended $17 million worth of improvements to Parish Utilities of Ascension (PUA), the successor to Peoples Water.

PUA serves Ascension’s west bank exclusively.  Work on PUA came to a halt on March 30, leading a visibly perturbed Councilman Alvin “Coach” Thomas in search of answers during Tuesday’s meeting of the Utilities Committee.  It was among $44 million worth of projects suspended early in the “coronavirus pandemic” when a shutdown of the local economy had the administration scrambling to assess the cost in lost tax revenue.

“From Day 1 we had a financial concern about this project,” said Chief Administrative Officer John Diez, recognizing the vital importance of delivering potable water to the consuming citizenry.  “But PUA can’t afford this.  At some point we’ll be determining where you guys want us to go get the money to pay for this over the next audit year.”

In 2018, according to Diez, PUA lost over $260,000.  Subsequently the parish moved $2.5 million to PUA from other parish budgets or the utility would have been “$1.5 million in the hole.”  Infrastructure Director Ken Dawson added that the Finance Department also “raised questions about the model that was done” to justify purchase of Peoples Water and operations at PUA.

Which did little to assuage two council members with constituents on the west bank.

“I want a working relationship with the president,” claimed Thomas who noted Ascension population growth approvingly.  “To keep it that way we need to work together.”

Thomas’ district includes Donaldsonville which, along with the remainder of west bank Ascension, has not witnessed a new residential subdivision since the early-1970s.  Since reclaiming his council seat, lost to a bribery conviction and prison sentence in 2006, Thomas has actively thwarted efforts by the Cointment-administration on multiple fronts.  Cointment did not appear at Tuesday’s teleconference meeting, a fact seized upon by Coach Thomas who criticized the parish president as “missing in action.”

“I think this project is something we need to do,” added a less combative Councilman Joel Robert, whose district includes a sliver of the west bank.

$17 million in available funding is comprised, according to Utilities Chairman Corey Orgeron, of a $9.5 million loan and a $7.5 million grant, both from USDA.  In July 2018 then Infrastructure Director William Daniel, unable to account for 11 million gallons of “non-revenue water,” estimated the cost of necessary upgrades between $25-30 million.  3,000 water meters were as antiquated as 70+ miles of galvanized pipe in the ground.

In addition to replacing pipes, Daniel claimed the USDA grant/loan would be devoted to state-of-the-art replacements; at $300/new meter installed at a $900,000 pricetag along with a SCADA (Supervisory control and data acquisition) system to modernize operations.  He explained that application of the grant monies would avoid imposition of increased rates on residential consumers.  During lengthy negotiations between Ascension Parish and Peoples Water during 2015-16 the parish factored in 33% rate increases necessary to pay for upgrades.

No increase in rates was applied until recently with no way to gauge adequacy in relation to system upgrades as yet.