DONALDSONVILLE — The Ascension Parish Council agreed Thursday to have administration officials sign on the dotted line and buy Peoples Water Service Co. in Donaldsonville for $5.9 million.
The council also touched on the matter of the sole bid it’s expected to receive on a $300 million to $500 million regional sewer system for East Ascension.
The Peoples Water Service purchase, which still needs the blessing of the Louisiana Public Service Commission, gives the parish its own water plant, equipment and 3,100 customers in Donaldsonville, including the expanding CF Industries complex.
Parish officials have said the plant would allow them to control water quality for rural parish customers in West Ascension who, until last week, had been plagued by the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri.
“I assure you that, first off, all the folks in Donaldsonville will be protected by better water, because what this enables us to do, is we will no longer be purchasing water from St. James and Assumption, but we will be producing our own water,” said parish attorney Jeff Diez, who negotiated the deal.
Parish officials have blamed the appearance of the amoeba in late July on long service lines with few customers combined with difficulty in controlling chlorine levels in the purchased water.
But the purchase will also mean rate increases for Donaldsonville city residents, who are now served by Peoples Water and have not had the amoeba problem. Under that increase, the average bills of residential customers in Donaldsonville would rise from $33.59 per month to $44.65 per month, parish officials have said.
The council agreed Thursday to have the option of hiring a special counsel review the sole bid it is expected to receive by Monday.
The council members voted without opposition and without tipping their hands on whether they will proceed with one bidder on the massive sewer project.
Parish Attorney O’Neil Parenton Jr., who is an assistant district attorney, said he and District Attorney Ricky Babin want the option of hiring a specialist to review the bid, which must propose a novel plan to finance, design, build and operate the sewer system for up to 30 years.
Parenton said design-build projects are illegal in Louisiana for public entities, with a few exceptions, and he wants someone to review the proposal to ensure that aspect of it is legal.
The parish plans to use a public-private partnership to design, build and run the system in East Ascension but also contribute a $60 million low-interest loan through the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Glenn Shaheen, the owner of GSA Consulting Engineers of Gonzales, which is part of a group of companies that submitted the only letter of intent to bid last month, said after the meeting Thursday he plans to have his group’s proposal in by the Monday deadline.
Proposals must detail not only how the system will be designed but also important political questions: how it would be financed and how much residents who are a part of system would pay in user and hookup fees.
When asked after the meeting, Shaheen said he does not believe having one bidder is anti-competitive.
He said other potential bidders, some of whom had asked last month for more time to submit a proposal, said the information needed for the sewer project was online or public record while some of those bidders were involved in bids for past parish attempts at a public-private partnership.
Shaheen added the key to the proposal is not the engineering but finding the investors to finance the project up front and be willing to wait long term on a return.
The parish has tried public-private partnerships twice before, but they did not happened. A third failed attempt may raise credibility questions, Shaheen argued, among those looking at Ascension from the outside.
“I think this is the last opportunity for the parish to get it done. I mean that’s my prediction,” Shaheen said.
Thursday’s vote on Peoples Water brings the proposed purchase close to being finalized in the final two months of the administration of outgoing Parish President Tommy Martinez, who has pressed for the deal.
Colby Cook, PSC spokesman, said before the council meeting the commission must consider an 18-point standard to see whether the purchase is in the public interest.
He said depending on whether the case draws interveners who challenge the purchase, the PSC review could take one to months or three to six months.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.