DONALDSONVILLE — Ascension Parish government for the first time will have the ability to regulate and inspect private community sewage treatment systems and levy fines against their operators if they run afoul of health and safety rules.
A newly adopted 27-page update to the parish sewer ordinance finally gives Ascension the ability to respond to residents’ concerns about problematic treatment systems, Ken Dawson, parish chief administrative officer, said Friday.
Parish officials are portraying the ordinance as an important step in a years-long drive to bring municipal sewer to unincorporated Ascension.
As a first phase, parish officials are eyeing a densely populated part of Prairieville along Airline Highway and parts of La. 73 and La. 42.
But lengthy council questioning over the ordinance’s adoption Thursday night made clear that sticking points remain that affect a major unanswered question: how many customers can the parish expect whenever the new Ascension sewer system comes to life?
The customer estimate plays heavily into how large a system the parish should start with, how much of a $60 million low-interest loan through the state Department of Environmental Quality the parish should take on initially and, ultimately, what user fees will be.
Benny Johnson, Parish Council Utilities Committee chairman, said Friday that the interconnected nature of those and other questions creates a dynamic situation officials are trying to assess.
“We’re still crunching those numbers to make sure we’re as accurate as possible so we make an informed decision,” Johnson said.
If they overestimate the number of customers, he said, the system might not have enough effluent to operate and would need heavy parish subsidies. If they underestimate, the parish would be looking at upgrades to a system they just built.
As parish officials grapple with those questions, they acknowledged Friday they will not close on the sewer loan by the end of the year, as planned, but in August.
Also, an attempt to bring in a large base of customers has failed. Parish President Tommy Martinez said Friday negotiations to buy sewage systems from Mo-Dad Utilities Inc. were halted after the two sides could not agree on a price.
Martinez, an ardent backer of sewer for two decades, reminded the council Thursday that a west bank water system, operated under Ascension Consolidated Utilities District No. 1, was built in the mid-2000s based on an estimate of 1,100 customers.
The system has only 700, however. The early overestimate led to regular shortfalls, Martinez said, that the parish general fund must make up.
“But we should be making money with water. Maybe at some point it happens, but I don’t know a whole lot of sewer systems that make money,” Martinez told the council Thursday. “I don’t know a whole lot of them that break even, so once you get in it, you’re going to be in it for the long haul, and it’s a scary thought, so it’s a tough decision.”
His comments came after council members Chris Loar and Teri Casso aired concerns over how quickly residents and businesses would be required to tie in once sewer lines are put in the ground.
The proposed ordinance would have deferred sewer fees between six months and a year for any resident who had to connect to the parish system after previously installing an individual system within a year.
They noted the one-year time frame would mean some residents and businesses would lose expensive investments in individual sewage systems. Loar said he restored a 120-year-old house two years ago and installed his own system.
He proposed a seven-year schedule setting out when residents and business would have to hook up. Loar and Casso did not succeed with the amendment, but Johnson agreed to pull that section of the ordinance so a compromise could be reached later.
A downside of any compromise could be that fewer customers would hook up right away, a possibility that led Martinez to remind the council of ACUD’s troubles.
The council voted 8-1 on Thursday to adopt the ordinance with the deleted section and several other amendments. Councilman Bryan Melancon voted no. Council Chairman Randy Clouatre does not vote unless to break a tie. Councilman Dempsey Lambert was absent.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.