Ascension Parish government plans to ask voters in late April whether the parish should sell its sewer systems and grant a long-term franchise agreement to a company owned by a Jim Bernhard-led private equity firm, parish officials said.

A small group of parish officials and the company, National Water Infrastructure, have been negotiating in private for weeks on a deal that has not been made final or public, but past versions of the proposal have involved steady rate increases for customers of NWI and the underfunded parish system.

Any deal would involve roughly 19,000 combined customers of the parish and NWI, the entity that took over from a longtime parish sewer company, Ascension Wastewater Treatment, after Bernhard Capital Partners Management bought the company in April for an undisclosed price.

With systems also in East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Iberville parishes, NWI is the largest private sewer company in the state. Bernhard Capital, led by former Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard, has raised $3 billion and has been looking to invest in utilities as part of its investment strategy.

Councilwoman Teri Casso, who has been part of the negotiations with NWI, said they are close and that parish officials are pushing to have the details out by the council's meeting on Dec. 17. If they can't be by then, the deal will be public in January, the council chairwoman said.

On Thursday night, the Parish Council adopted a required legal notice that calls for an election on April 24. The notice passed without opposition and one member absent, Councilman Dempsey Lambert.

Before the vote, Councilman Chase Melancon said the parish had to adopt the notice due to legal time lines for the April election date but promised voters in Ascension would soon get a look at what the parish and NWI have been working on.

"As soon as that is 100% done, for the next three and a half, four months, we are going to bombard them with all the information that we have, educate them and help them with these decisions, but the only reason we're passing this tonight without the details is because of the time constraints of the April election," Melancon said, speaking during a virtual gathering.

Councilmen Michael Mason and John Cagnolatti could be seen nodding their heads along with Melancon on the virtual meeting split screen as he made that promise.

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To complete any sale, parish voters and the Louisiana Public Service Commission must approve any deal. 

The latest information that is available on the parish's long-running attempts to deal with its scattered sewer systems of more than 2,000 customers, however, do represent something of a shift since the last time information was publicized in September.  

Earlier versions of the plans with NWI and Bernhard Capital had called for a long-term agreement for NWI to run the parish system with an option to buy.

Some on the council were pushing even then to move quickly to a sale. Now, the latest version of the deal is calling for NWI and the parish to go straight to a sale of the parish's assets, Casso confirmed.

Also on Thursday, the council also took another step to ease the path toward a potential sale, abolishing an east bank utility district, Ascension Consolidated Utilities District No. 2, that held some but not all of the parish's sewer assets.

Some of those older assets were in the parish's name, not ACUD No. 2's, so to simplify the any sale, council did away with ACUD No. 2.

The procedural move also carried some symbolism of the change in the direction for a parish that, for years, had tried without success to create a public-private partnership and regional public system.

ACUD No. 2 was created in 2010 as a vehicle for the parish, then under Parish President Tommy Martinez, to create a such a private partnership.

Casso said an appraisal of the parish's sewer assets was expected by Dec. 15. Those assets include neighborhood-wide treatment systems, major trunk lines along La. 42 and La. 73, and other infrastructure, including new sewer upgrades that the parish is still finishing with federal grants in the Darrow/Astroland area.

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