Cointment and Parish Council face difficult fiscal decisions in 2021

Ascension Council and President

Introducing the proposed 2021 Budget Ordinance on Thursday, President Clint Cointment’s administration is forced to cope with a stark reality inherited from his predecessor’s four-year tenure.  While Ascension Parish continues to enjoy healthy revenue generation ($46.5 million from three Sales Tax districts and $30.3 million in property tax assessments, along with many more millions in miscellaneous monies), former president Kenny Matassa’s bloated payroll and penchant for excess pose lingering problems.

According to Chief Administrative Officer John Diez, citing DPW Director Ron Savoy, payroll for the parish’s Department of Public Works has escalated by “$5 million over the last four years.”  Which could be justified if citizens were receiving a commensurate amount of increased services, but…

Waste and past inefficiency limit the ability to tackle even a small portion of necessary infrastructure projects to keep pace with rapidly expanding demand.

Incredible as it seems, input from department heads was not sought by past administrations when preparing annual budgets.  Sheer lunacy which is being rectified in the first budget presented by the Cointment administration (the following year’s budget is adopted by the Parish Council each November; Cointment and a new council were sworn in on January 6).

While there is something to be said for continuity in the transition from one administration to the next, failed policies should be scrapped as soon as possible.  Case in point…

Peoples Water boondoggle coming home to roost

Parish Utilities of Ascension (PUA, formerly Peoples Water Company) “has lost money every year” according to CAO Diez, which is not news to anyone paying the least bit of attention.  PUA was created in 2017 to subsume Peoples Water after its September 2016 acquisition for $5.9 million.  Ascension Parish Government (APG) is going to be grappling with it for the foreseeable future.

The parish sales pitch, going back to Tommy Martinez’ last administration, was that increased consumption fees were going to pay for necessary improvements.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…and these plans were far from well laid.  As things presently stand, ancient west bank water meters do not accurately reflect water consumption, thus underbilling costumers.  Diez argued for replacing those meters to accurately gauge consumption and, the theory goes, generate more revenue for PUA.

Will new meters generate additional revenue sufficient to pay for needed system upgrades?  The citizens served by PUA deserve safe drinking water as a right.

Boil Water Advisory in effect for parts of Donaldsonville

To ensure the safety of this fundamental commodity, taxpayers at large will be forced to foot the hefty bill for pipe replacement (wooden pipes formed part of Peoples Water’s system) and other improvements.

“Until PUA becomes solvent, where are you gonna take the money from?” President Cointment posed the question for council consideration.  “Is it roads?  Is it recreation?”

There is an (approximately) $8 million Clean Drinking Water grant available through USDA, but…

“We must first spend $9 million (plus interest on a USDA loan) before we can go for that $8 million grant,” Councilman Aaron Lawler summarized the predicament, opining that consideration of the grant “is premature.”

Lawler alluded to potential illegality in paying off the loan from monies in APG’s General Fund.  Since Ascension Consolidated Utilities District (ACUD) #1 is joined with PUA in delivering west bank water, an already murky situation is further muddled.

Debt service on the initial loan would come to $375,000 per year with another 10% required by USDA as a reserve to ensure repayment.  USDA has to sign off at the outset, then Ascension must expend/repay the loan prior to Ascension accessing the “free money” in the grant.  Does the full council want to incur that long-term indebtedness; is it even legal to do so?

Parish Attorney O’Neal Parenton, apparently unintentionally, threw a monkey wrench into the equation.  Addressing the parish’s longstanding subsidization of sewer treatment on the east bank, Parenton concluded that it is unconstitutional to divert General Fund dollars to make up the annual shortfall ($4.2 million in 2019) faced by ACUD #2 east of the Mississippi River.  General Fund money cannot, according to Parenton’s argument, be devoted to a separate Utilities District like ACUD 2, or its west bank counterpart, ACUD#1.

The council deferred consideration of the USDA grant until April 2021, after the first fiscal quarter when increased revenue generation from new meters can be analyzed.

“If new meters generate enough money to pay for (system upgrades), we move forward with the loan,” CAO Diez recommended.

When/if the loan is taken and repaid, the grant money will still be available.