Agreement appears close after sewer treatment dominates local politics for two years

By Ascension Sewer (NWI)

Parish Government, along with the Parish Council, has expended more time and effort negotiating a deal to bring regional wastewater treatment to Ascension’s east bank than any other issue in 2020…and 2019.  Big money at stake, the ultimate question has always been; who is going to pay for the biggest capital project ever seriously contemplated in Ascension Parish?

While details of the latest proposed agreement have not been revealed, well-placed sources on every side (NWI, President Clint Cointment’s administration, and the Council) have assured the final draft is imminent.  The Council, as governing authority, would normally have the ultimate say; but President Clint Cointment has promised to oppose any measure which does not include approval by the voters.

While specific details have not been disclosed for public consumption yet, the question of whose going to pay for east bank regional sewer has been answered.  NWI has agreed to foot the bill, even paying Ascension a minimum $15 million for the parish’s sewer infrastructure assets which are being appraised.  An annual franchise fee to the parish is part of the equation, with Ascension avoiding millions in annual sewer subsidies (reportedly $4.2 million last year).

The issue of subsidization took on greater importance when Parish Attorney O’Neil Parenton opined that the practice is illegal in September.  Outside funding cannot, according to the Parish Attorney, be used to defray costs incurred by an independent governmental entity like Ascension Consolidated Utilities District No. 2.  ACUD #2 was created in 2010 to operate east bank sewer treatment plants taken over by parish government in years past.

It was abolished by the Council on December 3, never actually having operated east bank sewer treatment.  Required by the founding ordinance, a five-member Advisory Board was never appointed.

Since General Fund subsidies have paid for parish-produced water on the west bank, through Ascension Consolidated Utilities District No. 1 and Parish Utilities of Ascension, the ramifications of Parenton’s pronouncement are further reaching than first suspected.  Don’t be surprised if the Council considers off-loading, or trying to, these west bank water utilities once east bank sewer is resolved.

What a difference a year makes.

As President-Elect, it was Cointment, with Councilman-Elect Chase Melancon, who conducted what had been the only meaningful attempt at negotiation in late 2019.  For most of 2019 an agreement presented by NWI/Ascension Sewer, a consortium controlled by Bernhard Capital Partners, seemed a foregone conclusion.  The only thing that held up approval was the council’s unwillingness to cast what would have been career-ending votes prior to Election Day (October 12, 2019).

The PEOPLE won on Friday; Sewer deal DENIED, rescheduled for January 23

When a vote was taken (see link above), five days before last Christmas on a Friday night, a standing room only crowd showed looking for blood.  And the sewer can was kicked down the road again, the parish having undertaken numerous attempts over the decades.  But not very far.

A majority of the council had not be reelected anyway, but the political tactic vested the newly-elected president with all the power he needed to kill that deal; one which envisioned parish ownership of an NWI-operated/maintained system.  The original agreement envisioned $75.8 million in upfront cash from Ascension Parish, all customer fees pocketed by NWI.  Had the last council approved the deal, several subsequent ordinances would still need to be enacted to bring the deal to fruition, exposing the agreement to numerous vetoes by a newly-inaugurated President Cointment in 2020.

With six new council members (out of 11), whose to say whether a veto-proof eight-member voting bloc could coalesce to override.

Forced to deal with Cointment, whose stubborn insistence on certain points sometimes frustrated even close council allies, little progress was made until the second half of 2020.  The biggest sticking point, to this observer, was Council Corey Orgeron whose attempt to seize control of the negotiations nearly derailed the whole thing.  Appointed to chair the Council Utilities Committee, Orgeron convened an ill-conceived Sewer Negotiating Team which did little but carry NWI’s wastewater.

There is a good reason negotiation is left left to the administration.  NWI representatives were every bit as frustrated having to deal with “too many council opinions” in trying to confect an agreement palatable enough for all to swallow.

Orgeron leaves Casso holding the bag as Sewer Committee disbanding after one (official) meeting

It was a bad idea, ended when Council Chairwoman/Negotiating Team member Teri Casso moved to disband the team after an embarrassing May 26 meeting.  In retrospect, it was a turning point.  A few months later and the idea was broached to sell off all parish wastewater infrastructure to NWI.  Conducted out of public view, and with less input from 11 different council voices, things began to move quickly.

By the end of August it was unanimous…

Ascension Council wants out of the sewer business

Ascension elected officialdom had decided it wise to get out of the sewer business.  Once NWI signaled its receptiveness to the broader implications, negotiation began focusing on the details.  A final round of discussions, ongoing as late as Monday, have generated an agreement ready for consideration of the full council.

Expected by mid-December, multiple appraisals of parish wastewater assets have yet to be produced (there are rumblings that the number is lower than hoped for by the parish).  Mid-January is the new due date.  Packaged with the operating agreement, the asset transfer will go to Ascension voters as is required by Louisiana law.

Louisiana’s April 24 Election Day has been targeted.  That’s when the ultimate authority, Ascension’s electorate will have the final say.