Ascension hires Utilities Director; scrambling to decide fate of east bank sewer

Gavin Fleming (l) being introduced by William Daniel

Apparently, Ascension Parish has a new Utilities Director after nearly three years since President Kenny Matassa fired the last one, Bill Depew in October 2016.  Gavin Fleming was introduced by Infrastructure Division Director William Daniel at Tuesday’s meeting of the Utilities Committee.  Daniel, scrambling to meet deadlines for the full council to vote on an agreement for east bank sewer, can use all the help he can get.

Fleming, an LSU grad with ten years experience in construction management, must be ratified by the Council within 120 days.

Parish Utilities of Ascension (formerly Peoples Water Company) is in the middle of $17 million improvements.  Then there’s the largest capital improvement project ever contemplated by Ascension Parish.

Consideration of a second Cooperative Endeavor Agreement between the parish’s Ascension Consolidated Utilities District (ACUD) #2 and Ascension Sewer, LLC is targeted for next month’s Utilities meeting (September 10).  The “compressed” time frame caused more than a little consternation given the length and breadth of the agreement drafted by the conglomerate headed up by Bernhard Capital Partners; compounded by the need to hire outside expertise to review the 40 page, plus proposal.

The lead attorney, Timothy Hardy, is the guy Daniel wants to engage which has been delayed by Hardy’s leaving one firm (Roedel Parsons) for the mega-firm, Brazeale Sachse & Wilson.

Why the big rush? (Councilman Benny Johnson)

Daniel (and a contingent including President Matassa, Utilities Chairman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, Council Chairwoman Teri Casso, and two representatives of Bernhard Capital Partners) met with DEQ on Monday.  While the dreaded Consent Decree was not threatened, it looms overhead like the Sword of Damocles.  In real jeopardy, though, is the $60 million SRF loan at .95% interest that was made available six (or is it eight) years ago.

The loan was introduced by DEQ at a December 2013 meeting of the Parish Council.

Ascension Sewer’s CEA will be presented to the full council on September 19 and, if rejected the deal is dead.  Even if approved the interest rate may spike costing millions.  Before that council meeting the CEA has to be vetted by legal (Timothy Hardy) and Jacobs Engineering which Daniel hired to report on financial/engineering aspects of Ascension Sewer’s contract.

“I believe that DEQ is serious,” Chairman Satterlee said.  “They will put us under a Consent Decree if this deal goes down.”

Limits have already been placed on permitting for discharge into Bayou Manchac, according to William Daniel.  Which could mean “no new homes in Dutchtown, Prairieville” etc. but existing homes could see increased user fees when it comes time for treatment plants to seek renewal of permits.  Localized treatment plants could be forced to implement “tertiary treatment” at substantial cost.

All while Baton Rouge Water Company, which bills all of the parish’s sewer customers, seized upon the opportunity to play hardball.

“They’ve gone up considerably on their fees…some pretty onerous charges,” William Daniel justified hiring another law firm.  “I don’t want to be strong-armed into signing a contract that’s not in the best interest of the parish.”

An existing franchise agreement, renewed annually by its terms, notwithstanding, BR Water:

  • Has stopped billing new customers;
  • Refused to connect water service to parish-owned facilities; and
  • Refused to act until a new franchise agreement is signed.

Access to water is pretty important for operating a wastewater treatment plant.

The company seeks, according to the Infrastructure Director, a $10 fee for every new customer added.  Should Ascension Sewer’s CEA be approved 16,000 new customers would be added immediately (all of Ascension Wastewater Treatment’s) with more to follow.  BR Water also wants to add $1.47 to every bill.