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File photo -- A common sight in unincorporated Ascension Parish, a white discharge pipe, left, for an individual sewer treatment system empties into a drainage ditch along KC Road north of Gonzales Friday, April 12, 2019.

GONZALES — A bigger, better sewer treatment plant, more customers, better environmental benefits for Ascension Parish — and all of it done in half as much time as the parish government administration proposes.

That's what a private consortium says it can bring to eastern Ascension Parish if leaders sign a 30-year agreement.

Ascension Sewer LLC — made up of Bernhard Capital Partners Management, private sewer company National Water Infrastructure and others — recently released a three-page summary and related rate comparison. It is a response to Parish President Clint Cointment's $100 million, 10-year alternative plan for a parish-owned regional sewer service and update of an earlier proposal the partnership offered last year. 

"In our opinion and that of our engineering team, the two proposals are not comparable because the Administration's alternative is not a pathway to a modern Parishwide consolidated sewer system," Jeff Baudier, a top manager in Bernhard Capital and its sewer venture who is courting parish government, concluded in the assessment.

Martin McConnell, a spokesman for the Cointment administration, declined to comment on the proposal on Monday afternoon.

"At this time, it would be inappropriate for anyone in the Parish Government to make any comment, until this has been brought to the full council and a path forward has been agreed and voted upon," McConnell said.

Ascension Sewer proposes charging $10 per month for inspection service; the administration proposed $11 a month. Both proposals call for a new inspection program for an estimated 19,000 individual treatment systems, like septic tanks. 

The Ascension Sewer partnership is proposing a $215 million system to link up about 2,000 parish government customers and more than 16,000 customers of the one-time Ascension Wastewater Treatment sewer company that Bernhard has since bought. The first part of the plan would take five years to link up at least 11,000 customers to a new plant in Geismar.

Ascension Sewer, which has said it will go forward with or without the parish, says the current terms are available through July 31.

Councilman Corey Orgeron, chairman of the council committee leading the sewer effort, said he plans to meet with the administration Wednesday to discuss what's next and get more details on the parish's plans for an inspection program. His committee meets again on Tuesday.

Orgeron said council members are still trying to get a fix on the number of parish customers and other data to make an "apples to apples" comparison between the two proposals.

"We need to get to the bottom of what those true numbers are," he said.

The prior administration and Parish Council were close to approving the deal with Ascension Sewer in December, but Cointment, some incoming council members and others opposed many of the deal's terms and argued the new administration should make the decision.

Earlier this month, Cointment put forward his own plan that costs less than half as much as the Bernhard plan and keeps rates between $45 and $55 per month for 10 years. Cointment, who is negotiating with Ascension Sewer, challenged the partnership to do better in an interview. 

The Ascension Sewer plan would start rates at $57.90 per month but rise 4% per year for 10 years to $82.41 per month in the final year.

The long-term sewer rate structure has been a major political concern for parish officials through the years. The private venture's latest proposals drive deep into the parish's costs for its current sewer customers and how the partnership's rates would stack up when all those costs are factored in.

Bernhard and their partners found parish customers have required $2.9 million per year in net subsidization since 2014, primarily from the sales tax and general funds that pay for all kinds of parish needs. That works out more than $20 million over that seven-year period.

Parish customers in Ascension currently pay $42.50 per month, but if the subsidies are factored out, the rate should be $158.22 per month, according to the Ascension Sewer analysis.

The partnership also compared itself against rates in East Baton Rouge Parish. Though residents in that parish pay $55.51 per month, those costs are subsidized by a parishwide half-cent sales tax.

Without it, rates would be $78.38 per month, the Ascension Sewer partnership estimated. Rates in East Baton Rouge also are expected to go up by 4% per year at least for the next 10 years under a federal consent decree, city-parish officials said.

Ascension Sewer says it would build a state-of-the-art treatment plant that would discharge into the Mississippi River and reduce sewer wastewater discharges into ecologically damaged bayous and streams by 3 million gallons per day.

The administration plan calls for one or possibly two plants that would discharge into the Mississippi also. At least one of those plants — an expanded parish plant in Hillaryville — will rely on treatment lagoons that Ascension Sewer argues are "a step backward" from its technology and "permanently discourage future economic development" in that area.

Previous administrations have grappled with how to consolidate sewer service on the parish's east bank amid tightening regulatory controls on sewer discharges. In the past, parish leaders have considered going it alone with a combination of grants, loans, user fees and even a new tax or on trying a public-private partnership that delivers private capital but at a cost to ratepayers.

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