Ascension Parish Council member questions suspension of water system project

Michael Tortorich
Alvin "Coach" Thomas Jr. asks about the Parish Utilities of Ascension project during the July 7 Utilities Committee meeting.

Alvin “Coach” Thomas Jr. sought answers during the Ascension Parish Utilities Committee meeting July 7.

Thomas, who represents District 1 on the parish council, expressed frustration in getting information from the parish president on the Parish Utilities of Ascension water system. 

Parish government formed PUA after purchasing the former privately owned Peoples Water Company for $5.9 million in late 2016. PUA provides water service to about 3,000 customers exclusively on the west side of the parish, which is the area Thomas represents. 

Parish President Clint Cointment suspended the $17.5 million system improvement project in late March.

“I have some questions that need to be answered,” Thomas said to Infrastructure Division Director Ken Dawson during the meeting.

Why the halt to the project? According to Dawson, the coronavirus pandemic was the catalyst. The water project, along with other parish projects, were stopped due to the uncertain times. The administration sent a list of the projects to council members, he said.

The Bayou Lafourche Fresh Water District is in the process of relocating the intake structure along the Mississippi River, further complicating the matter, Dawson added.

The $17 million improvement project includes a $9.5 million USDA loan, Dawson confirmed. The remainder comes from USDA grant money.

“I hadn’t been getting the information I needed,” Thomas said. “Even though I met with Mr. Dawson, and he advised me that I needed to meet with his boss. Is that right, Mr. Dawson?”

“Yes, sir,” Dawson replied.

“I don’t know where your boss is. Where is your boss? Where’s the president?” Thomas asked.

“I can’t answer that…” Dawson began to answer.

“I want a working relationship with your president,” Thomas interjected. “I think we can work together. Each of us on this board. We need a working relationship so we can move forward. Move Ascension Parish forward.”

The parish president did not appear during the meeting, which was held via video conference.

“I still haven’t seen nor heard from the president,” Thomas said later.

During the Kenny Matassa administration, PUA customers were told a rate increase would be needed to upgrade the system.

Thomas’ next question: If the project is not carried out, why are the water customers paying higher rates?

“I wanted to talk to the president, but he’s missing action,” Thomas said.

In answering the question, Dawson said, “That’s not my decision.”

Thomas chuckled and replied,” That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I’m talking about.”

Chief Administrative Officer John Diez said “from day one” there was concern over the water system from a financial standpoint.

“No doubt what PUA does is one of the most important deliverables that parish government produces,” Diez said. “We produce something that goes into people’s bodies.”

Diez said PUA was in the red some $260,000 in 2018 when $2.5 million was moved from other sources.

“It wasn’t the only project that was delayed,” Diez said. “There were $44 million in projects put on hold until we see what happens with the economy.”