GONZALES — Ascension Parish government has named a six-person team to evaluate and help negotiate a proposed 30-year deal that would have a private consortium consolidate sewer service in the greater Gonzales, Dutchtown and Prairieville areas.
Four Parish Council members and two administration officials on the team represent President Clint Cointment and the council's attempt to re-initiate negotiations with the Ascension Sewer LLC after a delay on the deal just before the end of the year.
The consortium has its primary financial backing from Bernhard Capital Partners, a private equity firm founded by former Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard that has expressed interest investing in the utility market, but also includes Ascension Wastewater Treatment, the largest sewer provider in the parish.
Last year, the Ascension Sewer consortium had tried to cut a deal with the outgoing Parish Council and the administration of former President Kenny Matassa.
After the Oct. 12 primary delivered major turnover on the council and as more details of that plan came to light, Cointment and several of the new council members argued to slow down negotiations and give the new administration time to review the proposed deal. The council members then in place ended up pushing off a vote until the new year.
Formation of the negotiating team, which includes Council Chairwoman Teri Casso; Councilman Corey Orgeron, the Utilities Committee chair; and Chief Administrative Officer John Diez, comes as the Cointment administration has also promoted expansion of an existing parish sewer system in the Darrow/Hillaryville area south of Gonzales and called for a new inspection program for individual home septic and treatment systems.
"We're aggressively ready to address this issue," Cointment recently told a council panel about the inspection program, but added his administration needs council guidance, including whether and how to fund a new inspection department.
But Orgeron and other members of the Utilities Committee have said they still also plan to pursue negotiations with the Ascension Sewer consortium. The committee was expected to meet in closed session on the matter Tuesday night .
The group has proposed spending $215 million upfront on consolidating sewer service from dozens of neighborhood-wide systems with thousands of customers into a new regional plant that would discharge into the Mississippi River. That plan also had the long-term goal of linking up individual sewer users, by their choice, as the regional sewer network spread over time.
State regulators have pushed this and past administrations to create a regional system that dumps into the Mississippi to improve water quality in the parish's smaller, lower-flowing bayous and canals.
While the administration of former President Kenny Matassa pursued the Ascension Sewer deal, his administration had also floated a similar inspection program for individual systems last year, suggesting it be modeled after ones in Texas.
The parish has more than 20,000 of the individual systems, according to the latest tally. Parish officials then and now have said they believe those systems could be important toward improving the water quality of area waterways, a goal that has been driving the push by state regulators to see Ascension's sewer treatment services upgraded.
Ken Dawson, Cointment's interim infrastructure director, recently said that state Department of Environmental Quality officials told parish officials that the majority of Ascension's water quality problems stem from the individual systems, not the neighborhood plants.
"Now that only makes sense," Dawson told a council panel Jan. 30.
The neighborhood plants are operated by private companies, inspected by the state and generate fines for their operators if water quality is insufficient, he said.
While the parish has had an ordinance in place since 2014 that allows the parish to inspect individual plants, it hasn't been happening. Dawson said the law needs to be strengthened.
He said parish officials met with St. Tammany Parish officials who found their inspection program, along with public education, generated sizable improvements.
The Ascension program, which would involve parish inspectors, would have around a $10-per-month fee to pay for a survey of users, perform inspections and do random sampling of individual systems.
The Matassa administration had discussed new rules to require homeowners to hire licensed companies to inspect and do regular maintenance on their treatment systems as much as once a month.
At the same time, a letter DEQ sent Dawson on March 18, 2019, also highlighted the agency's desire to see the regional plant that would consolidate neighborhood and individual treatment plants. The DEQ letter reminded Dawson of the stringent limits on new discharge permits along Bayou Manchac because of its poor water quality.
Dawson also is on the team that will negotiate with Ascension Sewer consortium and has worked for parish government since the administration of former President Tommy Martinez.
The two others on the negotiating team are first-term Councilmen Joel Robert and Dal Waguespack.