GONZALES — Ascension Parish government has enacted under regulatory pressure a sweeping new law that lays out a framework for a future parish-run regional sewage system.
Under the law, parish government halts the addition of new subdivision sewer systems run by private companies — the parish will now run the systems — and establishes regulatory powers for itself and a fee schedule for future customers.
The Parish Council enacted the sewer ordinance — which has many other provisions and is modeled on the city of Alexandria’s sewer law — by a 7-0 vote Thursday night with four members absent.
Parish officials said they have plans to create a consolidated regional parish system in the next three to five years. As evidence of that, Kenny Matassa, parish utilities director, told the Parish Council Utilities Committee last month that a facilities plan was six to eight weeks away from review.
Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality has been warning parish officials that discharge requirements for treated sewage are soon going to get tougher due to water quality rules mandated by a 1990s federal court order. The state agency is encouraging installation of a regional system in the parish.
“This is a first step to get us going. We got to make some movement in this at this point. We can’t sit still in a vacuum and expect things to happen,” Parish President Tommy Martinez said in an interview Friday.
Average monthly bills for future parish customers would be about $30 per month. The new ordinance also calls for one-time hookup fees of $500, $1,250 or $2,500 or none at all, depending on the situation.
Business and commercial sewer system user fees could be much higher, depending on usage, and may include additional monthly surcharges. Some businesses can also be required to pretreat discharges into sewer lines.
Customers within 300 feet of future parish trunk lines would be required to hook up and potentially pay the fees.
Residents in subdivisions now on community sewer systems run by private providers would pay no hookup fee, Martinez said, if the systems are taken over by the parish.
The parish operates a few small rural sewer systems. Matassa said Friday that the average residential figure was set at what current parish customers pay.
The sewer ordinance has generated little public input at council meetings in the past month but councilmen have hashed it out primarily at two council Utilities Committee meetings this year.
Councilmen also have had meetings with the administration. On Thursday, Council Attorney Toni Falterman and Council Secretary Cinnamon Galtier spent nearly two hours reading the 32 pages of new law aloud in the council chamber, a task the parish home rule charter requires.
After the reading, during which members of the public gradually filtered away and councilmen and observers popped in and out of the meeting room, the council ratified the document with no discussion or public comments.
When the law takes effect in 10 days, it will not stop private sewer companies from running systems or immediately force businesses and homeowners to become parish customers.
But the law will stop new systems that are built in new subdivisions from being donated to private companies. Instead, the systems must be donated to the parish, which would run them, parish officials confirmed Friday.
At the same time, the parish continues to negotiate a buyout with the parish’s two largest private sewer providers, Martinez said. They do serve many parish residents.
Martinez said he was hopeful that by the end of the year, the parish would have the draft of an agreement on paper to carry out the changeover.
The parish has been awarded an $18 million loan through Louisiana’s DEQ to try to implement the consolidation plan.
Parish and DEQ officials said Friday an ordinance establishing the rate structure was required in order for the parish to close on the low-interest loan.
“Every municipality that borrows money must provide documentation to the (State) Bond Commission indicating that the municipality is capable of paying back the loan,” said Tim Beckstrom, DEQ spokesman.
He said Ascension’s plan is under extensive regulatory review by DEQ and other agencies.
Under the ordinance, future parish sewer customers who have municipal water service would pay $31.50 per month on average. That sewer fee is based on average water use at $7 per 1,000 gallons.
Residents on well water can pay a $30 flat fee or choose to meter their well water as a proxy in determining their sewer fees. The metering would not result in water charges or require hooking up to municipal water service, Matassa said.