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Ascension Parish Council punts water system work to March, pipe leaks next day

Michael Tortorich

A water main leak Oct. 16 in Donaldsonville caused a boil water advisory the day after the Ascension Parish Council voted to delay a plan to replace outdated pipes, prompting frustration from the Utilities Committee Chair.

In 2016, Tamiko Francis Garrison held a silent protest in front of the Peoples Water Company due to unsafe levels of chlorine dioxide in the water. Now owned by Ascension Parish Government, the system remains plagued with problems.

“No more excuses!” Chair Corey Orgeron wrote in a social media post over the weekend. 

Parish officials announced the advisory to the more than 3,000 Parish Utilities of Ascension customers, who by now, are quite familiar with the drill. Multiple boil water advisories have been issued in recent years. This time, construction in the uptown area around Mississippi Street was blamed.

Administrators have said PUA has been losing money since it was purchased for $5.9 million, and was losing money when it was privately-owned Peoples Water Company. Previous President Kenny Matassa’s administration bought the water company three years ago.

During the Oct. 15 meeting, the council approved a motion by member Joel Robert to move an item to the first meeting of March 2021. The agenda item was to seek approval of a USDA grant application for the water systems PUA and Ascension Consolidated Utilities District 1.

The Utilities Committee recommended the item for the full council a week prior. The grant also consists of a loan requirement, which Parish President Clint Cointment and his administration maintain the parish government cannot afford.

“The money is just not in the budget to pay for it,” Chief Administrative Officer John Diez said. “If you’re going to move forward with it, you just need to tell me where we’re going to find the money.”

While the administration agrees work needs to be done on the aging water system, Diez said the plan in 2021 is to replace the meters and generate additional revenues. Once PUA becomes self-sufficient, the parish could apply for the loan in 2022.

“The bottom line is: PUA has lost money every year since we bought it. It was losing money when we bought it. We just can’t afford it,” Diez said.

In order to get the grant, the parish must first borrow $9 million. After the loan, then comes the $8 million grant.

Council member Aaron Lawler, who sits on the Utilities Committee, voted against the item, calling it premature.

“I just don’t think it’s prudent to say we're going to spend $9 million and not have a way to pay for it. We wouldn’t do that in our homes, and I don’t think we should do that with the taxpayers’ money right now,” Lawler said.

Cointment mentioned there are other grants the parish can apply for that may not have such stipulations.

“Where are you going to get the money? That has to be answered first,” Cointment said.

Robert’s reasoning behind his motion was to start the work of changing meters. By March, the council will have had time to reevaluate the process. It passed without objection.

Over the weekend, Orgeron wrote a statement via his Facebook page calling for an emergency meeting in light of the water main leak.

Orgeron said he and fellow council member Alvin “Coach” Thomas, who represents the Donaldsonville area, have been warning the administration for months about the brittle pipes, some aged up to 100 years old. 

He called for parish government to “trim the fat” and spend money in the utilities department where it is needed. 

“Parish government is extremely top heavy with too many executives, an overabundance of engineering studies and not enough money spent serving the people. We need to act immediately to replace miles of decaying and corroded water lines,” he wrote.

Orgeron called the purchase of the former Peoples Water Company “a mistake” for parish government. 

“If that means putting a shovel in the hands of every elected official and bureaucrat in this parish, then that’s what needs to be done,” Orgeron wrote.