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Ascension Parish Council resolution passes sewer deal to voters

Michael Tortorich

During a special meeting Feb. 11, the Ascension Parish Council approved a resolution calling for an election to authorize the sale of sewer assets and to enter into an agreement with National Water Infrastructure.

The move sets the stage for voters to decide on the deal April 24.

Ascension Parish Council Chair Teri James Casso, shown during a November meeting in Donaldsonville, recalled last week the three-decade journey to a regional sewer system. Voters will make the ultimate decision on the deal April 24.

Council members, as well as the parish government administration, have said a public information campaign will lead up to the election date.

District 6’s Chase Melancon said he has been in contact with the parish school system to secure locations for open-house events at all four corners of the parish. He said Dutchtown Middle, Prairieville Middle, Lake Elementary, and Lowery Middle are the four planned sites.

“We’ll have all the information and be there from 6 p.m. until however long it takes to answer everybody’s questions,” Melancon said. 

A regional sewer system has been discussed for some three decades. Council Chair Teri James Casso began the meeting recalling the first parish sewer meeting she attended in the early 1990s.

Initial discussions over consolidating sewer systems were “not met with a lot of enthusiasm,” she said.

As she recalled, by August 2011, the first major parish sewer ordinance passed. The purpose was to grow the system, consolidate, and build a regional system.

“We had no clue how complicated that process was going to be,” Casso said.

She called the particular ordinance a mistake that did not work. 

“I’ll always regret that we didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of what we were trying to undertake,” she said.

In 2019, Bernard Capital Partners offered to buy assets and build a regional plant in the northern part of the parish. Council members have been negotiating the terms over recent months, and now express confidence in the deal.

“It is a negotiated deal that we feel very comfortable about, those of us who participated in the negotiations and the administration. We’re satisfied that this was the very best deal we could get,” Casso said.

She echoed the sentiment of others who said they look forward to helping the public understand the decision before them.

“It will make a difference for our children and for their children and our businesses. It will make a tremendous difference for our parish government. It will take off our plate a very expensive effort to accomplish what we have not been able to since 1990,” Casso said.

Parish President Clint Cointment said the whole process was a collaborative effort.

“Everybody here has had a part in this to some degree,” he said.

The president touted the deal as a way to save money that could be better used on roads, recreation, and drainage. 

Council veteran Alvin “Coach” Thomas, who represents District 1, said the parish has a historic opportunity.

“It’s been a long time coming. I remember it back in the 1990s. I left, then came back, and we’re still having it,” he said.

District 4’s Corey Orgeron said he was thrilled that the public will make the final decision.

“Each one of us will be available to our constituents to answer any questions they may have,” he said.

Aaron Lawler, who represents District 7, recalled past deals that were not feasible. Instead of a proposed 40-year deal from 2015, the current deal is for 20 years and is non-exclusive. If another 15,000 customers are added, NWI will build another plant, he added.

The current agreement calls for NWI to pay $9.26 million for assets.

“We’re here to earn your trust. Part of that is to show you, hey, we have a plan for this. We’re not flying by the seat of our pants here,” Lawler said.

In addition to the in-person open-house events, the council plans to host some virtually due to the pandemic.

“Don’t be shy. Don’t say you’re not going to vote for this because you don’t know something. Educate yourselves. We’re all here to answer questions for you,” Lawler said.

Aside from the financial benefits, he added the importance of cleaner waterways.

Following the meeting, Coinment released a statement pointing to the parish’s $42 million in subsidies for 2,000 sewer customers over the last decade.

“My administration fully supports this sale of the parish’s sewer system because along with all of the financial benefits, this is our best chance to improve the environment and remove 3 million gallons of sewer effluent per day from our polluted waterways and ditches,” he said in the statement.

The deal would transfer parish sewer treatment plants and east-bank pipes, excluding inside the incorporated municipalities of the City of Gonzales and Town of Sorrento. 

Additionally, NWI would owe the parish an annual franchise fee of about $500,000 a year. The fee could increase as new customers are added.

The agreement would commit NWI to invest $200 million into the system. The new plant would consolidate current sewer treatment systems and direct treated wastewater to the Mississippi River.

Plus, NWI will invest more than $1 million in sewer repair at Oak Grove Primary School, which serves the school and some customers along Hwy. 42 in the Prairieville area.

The Public Service Commission would have to approve the deal. It also regulates sewer rates.