PRAIRIEVILLE — Voters across all of Ascension Parish will decide Saturday whether to sell a number of government-owned sewage treatment systems on the east side of the Mississippi River to a private management firm backed by former Shaw Group head Jim Bernhard.

The deal would include a network of public sewer operations in unincorporated areas, primarily in Prairieville and Dutchtown, leaving out those serving Gonzales and Sorrento. Sewer operations west of the river are also not part of the proposed deal.

National Water Infrastructure, owned by Bernhard Capital Partners Management, would take ownership of sewer plants, trunk lines and other elements of the waste system by paying the parish $9.26 million. It would also promise to build within five years a new $200 million regional treatment plant that discharges into the Mississippi River, long a goal of state regulators.

It's not clear what kind of rates NWI's current and future parish customers -- about 19,000 in all -- would pay under the deal.

Parish officials have said it would be up to the Public Service Commission to set rates; NWI has said ratepayers could see an “extremely minimal” rate increase in the next two years, and capital expenditures could bring a later increase.

NWI residential customers currently pay $45 per month; parish customers pay $42.50 per month.

Among the parish assets, NWI would gain two major, costly sewer lines under La. 42 and La. 73 and also a regional collection system and discharge line to the Mississippi River. The latter were financed through several million dollars from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and federal hurricane recovery money. 

The parish would simultaneously agree to a nonexclusive franchise agreement for NWI that would pay the parish $500,000 a year to start. The parish's annual fee collections would increase as new customers are added to the system.

The state Public Service Commission would need to approve the deal, along with any potential rate increases.

The proposal represents a marked shift from generations of parish officials and, for a time, even first-term Parish President Clint Cointment. They had sought ways to have the parish finance and expand its own regional system, but were unable to reconcile the high costs through taxes, high user fees or significant subsidies with general parish funds.

For months, Cointment and a unified front of parish officials have argued the deal would put an end to costly public subsidies of a far-flung collection of sewer plants -- $42 million over the past nine years -- that won't ever reach economies of scale that would make them cost-effective.

The parish spends $3 million per year alone in general tax revenues to subsidize the existing system. And it also would need to find a way to finance the kind of large regional system NWI is proposing to satisfy state regulators worried about the poor water quality in the parish's bayous.

Meanwhile, the money saved and also earned under the NWI deal can be put to other needs in the growing suburban parish, they have argued. Parish officials estimated the combined savings and earnings could hit $95 million over 20 years.

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In a recent public hearing in Prairieville, parish resident Rob Cowzer, 68, asked Cointment to explain why he had personally switched from opposing an earlier pubic-private partnership with NWI and arguing that the parish could finance its own regional sewage treatment system to now saying the parish's only path was to let NWI take full control.

"When you look at the numbers, the whole deal has switched over and that's why. If I didn't think this was best for the people of this parish, I promise you, I would not support it," Cointment said.

Cowzer remained skeptical of the parish's saving estimates and promised spending. Other residents said they were likely to support the measure.

Some of the public meetings, however, have been lightly attended. In early voting, 1,550 people have voted in person.

Parts of the eastern and all of western Ascension are also voting in the 2nd Congressional District runoff. 

Under the deal, thousands of homeowners on individual treatment systems would not be required to hook up to the future NWI system. 

As president-elect in late 2019, Cointment and a handful of councilmen-elect opposed and stalled a proposed public-private partnership with the essentially same company that would have kept Ascension in the sewer business.

After floating a plan to have the parish build its own sewer system in May, Cointment, like other parish officials, has concluded it was time to sell.

The sewer asset appraisals represent significant hit for the parish. Appraisers estimated the replacement value at nearly $28 million. 

But Cointment and others have suggested the appraisals show a parish system is a losing proposition. At the same time, the cost of more valuable parish assets would have been born by NWI's ratepayers.

"We wholeheartedly believe this is the best thing for the future of Ascension Parish when it comes to saving tax dollars, to spending more wisely and to protecting our general fund," Councilman Chase Melancon said in St. Amant earlier this month. 

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