A Brief History of Ascension’s (f)utility: Eight councils have attempted parish-wide sewer

Then Parish President Tommy Martinez (left), in a celebratory mood after August 27, 2015 Utilities Committee meeting.  He is accompanied by Councilman Doc Satterlee (right) and two GSA Consulting engineers.

On February 17, 1994 the inaugural Ascension Parish Council, its membership converted Police Jurymen, held the fourth meeting in its six week history.  Councilman Joseph Pierre initiated a discussion about “very much needed parish-wide sewerage and water.”  Fast forward nearly 27 years and the council is still having that discussion; though Ascension has never been this close to comprehensive wastewater treatment for the parish’s east bank.

The current council is scheduled to consider a ballot initiative that would grant a parish-wide sewer franchise.

NOTE:  See link at bottom of page for that story.

Before anyone starts counting chickens, Ascension Parish has trod this path before without closing the deal.  There have been “concepts” introduced, studies done, franchise agreements discussed, public private partnerships bandied about, grants received, low-interest loans made available, proposals presented, wastewater regulatory schemes codified in ordinance form, boards and Sewer Districts created, then abolished…all for naught when the rubber met the road.  But maybe, just maybe, this time is different.

As a matter of fact, Ascension Parish has been “in the sewer business” for a quarter-of-a-century.

1994-1995 (half council term after adoption of Home Rule Charter in July 1993)

In January 1995 a $444,772 expenditure by the parish “completed the Smoke Bend Sewer Project.”  A month later Louisiana Department of Health declared the sewer system of Country Ridge Subdivision “inadequate, considerable expenditures necessary to protect public safety.”  Supposed to operate a system repaired at taxpayer expense and collect fees to repay Ascension Parish, residents formed Sewer District 6 which proved unable to meet the challenge.

That district, and others, would be abolished when the parish council created Ascension Consolidated Utilities District (ACUD) #2 in 2010.

Ultimately, ownership of, and responsibility to operate Country Ridge Subdivision Sewer System was taken over by a parish with little alternative.  Over the years 30, and counting, community systems have accumulated, most of them pursuant to a 2014 ordinance requiring dedication to the parish by each new residential subdivision.  But other wastewater treatment emergencies have occurred…

  • Trailerland Subdivision Sewer
  • Darrow Community Sewer
  • Hillaryville Community Sewer

all listed on Ascension’s governmental website.  Maintenance and repairs of the various systems has run into the millions of dollars, and that’s not counting annual operating costs.  Last year subsidization of parish-operated systems totaled over $4 million as uniform monthly rates stagnated at $42.50 per month some years back.

Seven different councils have served since passage of the Home Rule Charter, each taking a swing at parish-wide sewer…and whiffing.

1996-1999

The first elected council, at it first meeting on January 4, 1996, received a Corps of Engineers’ “year-long wastewater feasibility study” recommending privatization.  After hiring GSA Engineers to “investigate” options, the first of many contracts for the firm, the council resolved to “seek proposals for parish-wide water/sewerage.”

That began a 16 month dalliance with an outfit called Ogden Yorkshire Water Company, which went south at the end of 1997 when its proposal was deemed “undercapitalized” at $200 million.  So that council hired GSA and two other firms “to conduct a study for a parish-wide sewerage and water system” on January 5, 1998.  Astroland Subdivision was declared a Sewer Emergency by September of that year and the council was asking for an update from GSA in December.

President Tommy Martinez, beginning the last year of his second term in January 1999, expressed “grave concerns over the urgency to move forward” with some plan, any plan.  Unable to repay the parish for necessary repairs, Astroland Subdivision gave Ascension its sewer treatment plant and two lots in satisfaction; the council approved $375,000 to build a new system in April.  By December significant upgrades were necessary at Country Ridge Subdivision after an EPA-levied fine.

2000-2003

Harold Marchand won the parish presidency on October 23, 1999, besting the incumbent by 288 votes in a contentious election.  Five incumbent members were not reseated when the Council took office in January 2000.

SIDE NOTE:  On March 16, 2000 the Council received a DOTD presentation on “the proposed Hwy 42 project.”  We digress.

Against President Marchand’s wishes and without unanimity, the Council hired GSA to resume its activities a few months before creating Ascension Consolidated Utilities District #1 in August (west bank).  GSA was tasked “to perform the Preliminary Design Phase…including analysis of the Lamar Dixon Expo Center wastewater treatment plant” in 2001.

2002 was consumed with seeking DEQ approval of the plan, a grant to pay for some of it…and spending $900,000 for Trailerland sewer improvements.  More of the same in 2003, culminating in appropriation of $1 million for the Hillaryville Sewer Core Project in November of that year.

2004-2007

Two months later and Parish President Ronnie Hughes took office, along with six new council members.  In March 2004 the new council adopted “a framework for the implementation of a comprehensive wastewater system” while the Corps of Engineers’ site study concluded Lamar Dixon was indeed the way to go.  In fact, the Corps declared that, without its wastewater treatment plant and/or requisite land, parish-wide sewer was a pipedream.

In July the council budgeted $1.3 million in Community Development Bloc Grant (CDBG) money for the Darrow Wastewater Project, which came with a $1.9 million price-tag.  Ascension Parish Government, ultimately, would pony up $800,000 to complete the project in June of 2005, turning its attention to the Hillaryville Wastewater Project at the beginning of 2006.

By mid-year, the council’s Utilities Committee having been created, the “East Side Sewer District” was proposed to the full council.  The proposal included (1) a completed Engineering Report, (2) 15% complete Design of the Outfall Force Main, and (3) 35% complete Design of Wastewater Treatment Facility (not specifying the site).  That was the last the full council ever heard of it, though the body would grant Ascension Water Company a 20-year franchise in November.

April 2007 saw another $550,000 allocated for installation of a pump station at Country Ridge.  In August its plant manager “reaffirmed that BASF would provide 30 acres IF used for a comprehensive wastewater treatment facility.”  The council reception was, to put it kindly, lukewarm.

Councilman Adrian Thompson moved “to table any action on (the facility) and to conduct workshops to iron out the details.”  The motion was approved unanimously and…that was that.  There is no indication that any workshops were ever held.

2008-2011

Incumbent President Hughes exited the political stage, not seeking reelection and Tommy Martinez won a third term.  With six new council members on board, the effort toward Comprehensive Parish-wide Sewer Treatment was muted.  The first year of his term saw the council create a Utilities Department, with its own fund, and little else.

In March 2009 President Martinez pursued a low-interest State Revolving Fund loan from Louisiana DEQ.  ACUD #2 was created by ordinance in April of 2010, abolishing moribund Sewer District’s on the east bank.  Having accumulated various community systems, authorization was given the Utilities Department “to extend trunk lines, when feasible, to add customers to the Ascension Parish system” in August.

In December the council approved negotiations with Integra Water to “administer the Comprehensive Wastewater Program.”  That went nowhere, but 2011 saw the council codify a regulatory scheme to comply with the Clean Water Act of 1977 in August.

2012-2015

Councilman Benny Johnson was appointed to chair the Utilities Committee by, then council chair, Chris Loar in January 2012.  The decision would frame the effort toward parish-wide sewer for the next five years.  On April 4, 2013 Johnson’s committee recommended an RFQ “for Wastewater Utility Management Program (seeking) quotes.”  Unsurprisingly, GSA Consulting Engineers was selected over two other firms, proposing sewer treatment for the P-1-6 area with an $18 million DEQ loan at its disposal.  On September 19 Johnson presented a “Dedication of Revenue to fund Debt Service on P-1-6 construction with a (now) $60 million SRF loan.”

His motion to dedicate $3.3 million annually to service the debt received a unanimous second…and hope sprung eternal.  Johnson, joined by Louisiana DEQ and Department of Health, hosted public meetings to generate support, privately admitting his desire to propose a sewer tax for voter approval while conceding its (f)utility.  Without the tax, Johnson’s recalcitrance against any deal was noted by multiple of his council colleagues.

P-1-6 targeted densely-populated areas on Hwy 42 and Hwy 73 as the path to parish-wide sewer.  DEQ formalized the $60 million low-interest loan offer at the December 2013 Utilities Committee meeting.  (President Martinez’s administration would, eventually, conclude the plan was unworkable due to a lack of potential customers to service the debt).

Even so, the Council resolved its intent to issue $60 million in bonds at its May 15, 2014 meeting.  On November 6, 2014 it codified a comprehensive sewer ordinance which created the power to mandate private connection to the (non-existent) parish system, and regulatory powers to enforce its provisions.  On December 4 the Council authorized President Martinez to negotiate the purchase of ten acres in Geismar for a sewer treatment plant, derailed after neighboring residents staged a mini-revolt at First Pilgrim Calvary Baptist Church the last week of 2014.

Back to the drawing board it was and nothing much happened until September 3, 2015 when Utilities Chairman Johnson presented an “Authorization of issuance of RFP for Parish-wide Sewer.”  Initially, the response time was 30 days, indicative of GSA’s inside track to acceptance.  Increased to 60 days, still insufficient for competing proposals to be finalized, certain council members sought to have the RFP extended; but President Martinez was not having it as his final term in office was nearing completion (parish-wide sewer treatment, along with the purchase of Peoples Water Company on the west bank, was on his bucket-list).

5-3 Council vote tasks Parish President to negotiate with only sewer respondent

GSA’s was the only response and its consortium, Ascension Environmental was approved at a Special Meeting of the Parish Council on December 8, 2015.  Councilwoman Teri Casso was “very disappointed at the lack of competitive proposals,” as was Benny Johnson who would ultimately vote to proceed, assuaged by his committee’s future participation in ironing out contractual details.

The consortium included Ascension Wastewater Treatment (AWT), a key to any parish-wide sewer proposal because it has the bulk of Ascension’s rate-paying customers.

2016-2019

With incoming president Kenny Matassa, recipient of constant support from GSA’s Glenn Shaheen, the expectation was smooth sailing.  That was not to be as AWT pulled out of the consortium within weeks of Ascension Environmental being approved for negotiation.  Without AWT it was dead on arrival, even as Shaheen elicited foreign investment to keep the sinking ship afloat through 2016.

One of three new council members, highly-respected Bill Dawson opposed it from the outset.  When Dawson was elected to chair the council in 2017, it was over.  Nonexistent negotiations with Ascension Environmental were officially abandoned by the Council on February 23.

In October President Matassa hired William Daniel as Ascension’s first “Infrastructure Division Director” after a sham 4-day long national search.  Apparently unbeknownst to many, the administration and certain council members conspired to create the new position with William Daniel in mind.  The Baton Rouge politico repeatedly claimed to have taken the job “to bring sewer treatment to Ascension Parish.”

It was William Daniel who introduced Bernhard Capital Partners to select council members (future Utilities Chairman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee most prominent among them) in July of 2018, never uttering a public word.  Satterlee would succeed Councilman Randy Clouatre to the Utilities chair in January 2019, appointed by Councilwoman Teri Casso who had succeeded Bill Dawson as chair of the full council.

Blind Faith? Ascension cannot negotiate with anyone but Ascension Sewer

It wasn’t until May 7, 2019 that Ascension Sewer, LLC, the Bernhard Capital Partners-dominated conglomerate, appeared on the Utilities Committee agenda.  With a suddenly uninquisitive Chairman Doc Satterlee at the helm, their began a seven-month long public bromance with William Daniel and all things Ascension Sewer, LLC.  The Council approved an agreement giving Ascension Sewer exclusive negotiating rights for two years on May 16, President Matassa inked the deal on May 20.

Little to no actual vetting of Ascension Sewer’s 2019 proposal occurred, even less actual negotiation.  None of which can be laid at Ascension Sewer’s doorstep.  The council, unwilling to schedule a vote prior to October 12 when they had to face their constituents at the ballot box, delayed consideration until November.

By then, public furor and the stubbornness of Parish President-elect Clint Cointment had taken root.  The planned 11th-hour approval was avoided.

For what happened next, and how we’ve come to this point…

Council targets April 24 election date for approval of parish-wide sewer deal

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