GONZALES — Three-term Ascension Parish Councilman Randy Clouatre showed up Tuesday at an open house for the public to review a $200 million plan to bring regional sewer service to his parish with a nearly 18-year-old newspaper article tucked in a manila folder.
The headline from Nov. 6, 2001, in a local Gonzales publication read: "Parish water, sewer one step closer."
It's safe to say, after so many years of trying and failing to find the right partnership, the right plan and the right political consensus on regional sewer, that Clouatre and other longtime parish officials and engineers have been here before.
But, these parish officials and a new consortium of companies are trying again to bring municipal-style sewage treatment to a chunk of the parish's fastest-growing and most densely populated areas: parts of Prairieville, Dutchtown, Geismar and the western side of unincorporated Gonzales.
The first 10-year phase of the plan would use and add to major sewer lines that the parish already built under La. 42 and La. 73 to route sewage to a new treatment plant on the Mississippi River near Geismar, thereby removing treated discharges now going in the impaired Bayou Manchac.
Backers say the plan's first phase would remove 2.3 million gallons per day of treated effluent from Manchac now entering the historic waterway from a variety of community package plants. With the specter of a Baton Rouge-style federal consent decree hanging over Ascension, the bayou has been the focus of increasingly tight environmental regulation as growth in northern Ascension has boomed and water quality has declined.
Only a handful of residents showed up for the meeting Tuesday at the Clarion Inn, but a few who were there said this plan seems to be a good one.
"My impression so far is that the parish needs this. They've been needing something like this," said Bryan Hayman, 53, who lives south of Gonzales. "As a sportsman, also, I know the effect the (sewer) effluents have going into the river."
He added that while Bayou Manchac is the focus now, he believes Blind River and other waterways will eventually be affected, if not already.
The open house gathered public input on the plan before it is to be more fully presented to the Parish Council near the end of August. The council will be asked to decide if it wants to start an exclusive, up-to-two-year-long negotiation on a public-private partnership to build the system.
The first part of the first phase would bring in a few dozen subdivisions that are customers of Ascension Wastewater Treatment or of parish government. Early estimates suggest around 8,000 customers live in the developments.
That part of the first phase, which would include laying down critical infrastructure and building the main treatment plant, is expected to last three to five years.
Tom Pertuit, the owner of AWT, which is a partner in the consortium behind the plan, said those numbers could rise because not all those subdivisions have been built out fully and the figure doesn't include a handful of businesses and residences along the main lines that might join the system in that first swipe.
Pertuit said the subdivisions would be the easiest and the quickest to bring online.
The entire first phase area has about 19,000 customers, according to current estimates. The treatment system would have the capacity to handle more than 35,000 customers.
In addition to AWT, the partners in the Ascension Sewer LLC consortium include Hartman Engineering, GSA Consulting Engineers and Bernhard Capital Partners. Ascension Sewer would design, finance, build and maintain that system in exchange for 30 years of monthly fees from ratepayers.
The Parish Council would be the rate-setting authority, but the first 10 years of the deal would have built-in 4% annual increases, taking monthly rates from $56 to $82.89 by the last year.
Jeff Baudier, managing director of Bernhard Capital Partners, said the fees, even with the annual increases for the first 10 years, would remain competitive with those in East Baton Rouge Parish, which also has scheduled rate increases to comply with its long-standing consent decree.
He said the partnership has tried to balance three things in the plan's first phase: removing as large a volume of discharges from Bayou Manchac as possible, keeping sewer rates as reasonable as possible, and building as large a customer base as possible.
"We could have pushed either one of these in any other direction, but it's going to impact the other two, right? So, in other words, we could have gone for 60 bucks (per month in sewer fees) and built more, but we don't want to do that because we don't think the appetite is there, and we want to keep the target (price), which we promised the council," Baudier said.
He added that the fees would remain flat after the first 10-year period. The council would decide to increase fees if members wanted to accelerate later phases.
While many financial details remain undisclosed at this point, Pertuit said all customers of AWT in Ascension and of parish government would pay the new rates to help finance the overall system, even if they aren't in the first phase.
"You cannot expect 17 people to pay for the development down their street," Pertuit said. "That's not going to work. It has to be shared."
The proposal is coming forward as Ascension heads into contested fall elections for council members and parish president. While some council candidates at the meeting said they want more information on the plan and worried about its goals after 10 years, other politicians said they are more inclined to act.
"It's time not to pass this down the road," said Clouatre, who is not seeking reelection.