The fate of comprehensive sanitary sewer treatment for East Ascension is up to you, the voter, after a Special Meeting of the Parish Council on Thursday. A unanimous, and united, governing authority joined President Clint Cointment to begin selling the agreement with National Water Infrastructure (NWI) in anticipation of the election scheduled for April 24. In addition to the 20-year non-exclusive franchise for the Bernhard Capital Partners (BCP)-backed company, voter approval is required to sell Ascension’s wastewater treatment assets.
Those assets, in the form of various treatment plants foist upon the parish over the decades by mandate of Louisiana DEQ, have devolved into major liabilities. Ascension taxpayers, writ large, have subsidized sewer treatment for 2,000 or so of their neighbors to the tune of $42 million over the last decade or so. NWI will, as part of the proposed agreement, take those plants off of the parish’s hands (and books), assuming voter approval.
NWI has also agree to purchase the parish’s “Wastewater System” as part of the deal, appraised at $9,350,000 by Hartman Consultants, LLC. The “system” includes dozens of residential subdivision treatment plants, dedicated to the parish pursuant to requirements found in a body of ordinances adopted in 2014. The “Sewer Ordinance” was enacted as part of the parish’s last serious foray into the sewer treatment business…again, unsuccessfully.
That was Ascension Environmental, approved for negotiation in December 2015 by an outgoing council but never seriously attempted. There have been other efforts, described at Thursday’s Special Meeting by Chairwoman Teri Casso. If you’re interested…
Casso’s narrative about the current effort:
“By 2019 Bernhard Capital Partners and Ascension Wastewater Treatment came to the table and said they wanted to have us grant a franchise to them, and allow them to operate and maintain, and construct a regional sewer treatment facility. By December 2019, after lots of gnashing of teeth and vetting of that plan, the council opted not to do that.
In January of 2020 new negotiations started. By September of 2020 BCP had offered a very different approach to the sewer issue in Ascension Parish. They offered to buy all our sewer assets in exchange for a 20-year non-exclusive agreement.
They would build a regional sewer plant in north Ascension; and they agreed to build another whenever they could get another 15,000 customers. And, after much more gnashing of teeth…and friendly meetings, we are where we are tonight.”
Chairwoman Casso called it “the very best deal that we could get,” a sentiment echoed by her colleagues and President Clint Cointment who praised “a truly collaborative effort, contentious at times, which resulted in a great product.”
“All of us are willing to stand behind (the agreement),” Cointment added. “Everybody here has played a part in this. We need to be unified, we need to be together.”
Leaving the ultimate decision to Ascension’s 82,899 voters (according to Louisiana’s Secretary State as of November 3, 2020), who can predict the deal’s fate? How many of them will bother to show up for the off-cycle election? On December 20, 2019 an overflow crowd of angry citizens showed up to shout down a different agreement while no public speakers bothered to weigh in on Thursday.
The current proposal is drastically different than the 2019 version.
“The money we’re going to save; the money we’re going to turn over to build roads, and recreation, and drainage improvements…And we’re going to clean up our waterways,” the parish president asserted. “It’s a big deal.”
Indeed it is. What else could join Councilman Aaron Lawler to a Clint Cointment cause?
“Before he was a councilman, before he was parish president, Councilman Melancon and President Cointment came to the meetings, discussed it with us and really put some pressure on Bernhard Capital Partners,” Lawler reminisced. “The (2019) deal got rejected, and rightfully so.”
Lawler, rightly we believe, concluded that operating sewer treatment is beyond Ascension Parish’s capability. The first BCP deal would have, in our estimation, exposed the parish to disastrous financial consequences in a deal with a lengthier term and no escape for Ascension Parish. Councilman Lawler highlighted certain key changes resulting in “an excellent deal, 20 years” in length (the maximum allowed by law according to Lawler).
- Rather than pay $15.8 million and obligate taxpayers for repayment of a $60 million loan, BCP will pay over $9 million to the parish up-front;
- The current agreement offers a non-exclusive franchise, as opposed to 2019. Thus, potential competition is not prohibited though at a significant disadvantage;
- Parish-owned plants, and there average annual subsidy by taxpayers ($4.2 million per year) will be decommissioned;
- A treatment plant will be located near, and empty into, the Mississippi River with a second plant built when/if NWI generates 15,000 additional customers (no such clause existed in the 2019 proposal).
Lawler added that specific plans for spending the anticipated windfall will be presented for public consumption. 71 days until Election Day, expect the parish and NWI to push the campaign into high gear. Councilman Chase Melancon said there will be four Open Houses hosted by the parish, utilizing four schools around the parish pursuant to agreement with AP School Board.