With three council members-elect in the audience, and without a quorum as three current members were absent, Sorrento’s Town Council could conduct no business on Tuesday. Town Attorney Matt Percy was present, with long-awaited news on a lingering lawsuit. So was Ascension President Clint Cointment who pitched the Sewer Conveyance and Franchise Agreement between the parish and National Water Infrastructure, LLC on the April 24 ballot.
Percy was ready to update progress in the town’s lawsuit over $77,500 paid to Design & Build Consultants in 2012 for work never performed. Multiple of the party-defendants, all but Councilman Randy Anny and his one-time lawyer, offered to pay the full amount (without court costs and legal interest, we surmise) to be released from the suit. But Anny, Councilwoman Patti Poche and Councilman Donald Schexnaydre were not present.
Schexnaydre did not seek reelection on March 20. Anny nosed out Poche by five votes for the fifth and final spot on the council. Chad Domingue, Duane Humphrey and Darnell Gilbert, Sr. will be seated in July.
Mayor Mike Lambert, presiding over his third to last council meeting, welcomed the parish president along with Councilwoman Wanda Bourgeois and Councilman (also Mayor-Elect) Chris Guidry. Why should they support, or even care about the fate of east bank regional sewer treatment that excludes the Town of Sorrento (and the City of Gonzales)? Both municipalities enjoy their own sewer treatment systems.
Ascension Parish Government subsidizes 2,000 “customers” every year, approximately $4 million per annum paid out of the sales tax-funded General Fund. That tax is borne by every consumer in the parish, including those residents of Ascension’s three municipalities (Donaldsonville on the west bank).
“We looked at every option we could think of,” Cointment said of the parish taking on sewer treatment without participation by a private entity. “We could not make the numbers work.”
Unsurprising given several other unsuccessful attempts over the last three decades. In that time several outdated, failing subdivision treatment plants were foist upon the parish at the insistence of Louisiana regulatory agencies. DEQ oversees (or not) treatment plants while the Department of Health is responsible for individual treatment units (MoDADs and septic tanks). That is how the parish came to have approximately 2,000 “customers” who, according to Cointment, would have to pay $125 per month for the parish to break even.
Cointment dispelled a persistent criticism of the proposal, that individual treatment units will be forced onto the NWI system. The system will begin by connecting existing NWI customers, comprised of residential subdivision treatment plants along Hwy 42 and Hwy 73. Which was also the plan the last attempt at sewer treatment, 2016’s ill-fated Ascension Environmental.
Factor in the argument, made by the former Parish Attorney a few months back, that subsidizing utilities enjoyed by any private person or entity is unconstitutional and the ramifications are obvious. Voter approval of the Sewer Conveyance and Franchise Agreement means those 2,000 “customers” would become NWI’s; along with all the parish’s sewer treatment infrastructure. NWI would pay $9.26 million up front, plus an annual franchise fee beginning at $500,000 over the 20-year franchise term.
The fee, based on 4.5% of NWI’s gross revenues, could increase over time if NWI adds customers. Combined with the upfront cash it comes to $20 million extra dollars in parish coffers. Combined with $4 million saved annually in subsidies, Cointment estimated $95 million which can be targeted to roads, drainage, recreation, etc.
“I knocked on over 4,000 doors during two campaigns and nobody ever talked about sewer,” Cointment assured. “It was always roads and drainage, drainage and roads, and sometimes recreation. The agreement we negotiated is, I believe, the best deal we can get and the money involved can pay for an a lot of projects.”
Two years of “sometimes very tense” negotiations resulted in the proposal. Put together with state and federal funding, most of which comes with a matching requirement of 25%, (some are 10%), the parish president projected that $95 million could result in another $300 million, or more.
Voters will decide on April 24.