WATSON — Just down Cane Market Road from Watson Baptist Church, the residents of the Fountainbleau subdivision live in one of the most northern outposts of Ascension Wastewater Treatment's expansive sewer business.
The homeowners in Fountainbleau live north of Denham Springs, pay taxes for Livingston Parish schools and other public services, and elect Livingston Parish officials. Yet, they are among 2,800 Ascension Wastewater customers who don't live in Ascension Parish but would be part of a proposed 30-year deal to improve sewer service in the parish to the south.
Along with thousands more customers in Ascension Parish, they would see their monthly rates rise by $12.90 in the first year to $57.90, with automatic, 4% annual increases for 10 years that end at $82.41. Cost overruns could boost rates further.
In addition to Fountainbleau, 28 other neighborhoods with sewer systems operated by Ascension Wastewater in Livingston, East Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes also would be swept up in Ascension Parish government's plan with the consortium known as Ascension Sewer LLC.
Those communities include Gray's Creek, Cypress Point and Lakes at Juban Crossing in Livingston Parish; Beaver Creek and High Plains outside Zachary in northern East Baton Rouge Parish; and Landing at Mallard Lakes and Hoo Shoo Too Lakes in St. George. One neighborhood in Iberville, Oak Trace in St. Gabriel, is also part of the deal.
Ascension Wastewater Treatment, which is based in Praireiville, is a major partner in the consortium along with Bernhard Capital Partners that is trying to do the sewer deal with Ascension Parish government. Together, they want to design, build, operate and maintain a new regional system that would consolidate community plants in Ascension Parish and discharge treated effluent into the Mississippi River near Geismar, avoiding increasingly costly water quality rules for area bayous.
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Few residents of the Fountainbleau neighborhood, miles north of Geismar, had ever heard of the impending deal.
Fountainbleau residents contacted Tuesday said they could not recall receiving anything in the mail from Ascension Wastewater and had no idea what was happening.
"Sweet baby Jesus," Denise Davison, 48, who has lived in Fountainbleau 13 years, said when she learned about the plans and rate increases.
The out-of-parish customers aren't currently planned to be linked to the system's first phase, but backers of the proposal say their inclusion would help defray rates for nearly 17,000 customers in Ascension Parish by $7 to $11 per month.
Also, the 11 members of the Ascension Parish Council, for whom none of these out-of-parish residents can vote, would become the rate-setting authority.
Currently, the state Public Service Commission sets the rates. The customers have an elected representative on the state panel.
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Several residents in Fountainbleau said the sewer plant there has had problems with backups and foul odors. They should have been informed about the changes, they said, and were concerned about not having any elected representation in the Ascension deal.
"That sucks," Kim Martinez, 40, who has lived in Fountainbleau almost nine years with her husband and three children. "I live in Livingston Parish for a reason. I elect my officials here for a reason. … I have no say what goes on in Ascension Parish."
In all, the agreement would bring together 19,500 customers, about 3,000 for Ascension Parish government and 16,500 for Ascension Wastewater. The $215 million first phase would initially serve about 9,000 customers but is hoped eventually to serve more than 35,000 residential and business customers.
Last month officials with the consortium told an Ascension Parish Council panel they weren't planning to connect the out-of-parish systems to the future regional plant but also didn't rule out, generally, some kind of connection long term.
On Wednesday, Jeff Baudier, managing director of Bernhard Capital, said many of these out-of-parish systems — about half of the total — could eventually be linked into the Ascension system in later phases.
Some are just across the Amite River or Bayou Manchac from Ascension Parish. Others, like Fountainbleau or Beaver Creek, are miles away.
Baudier said the broader objective of the deal is to consolidate as many of the community sewer plants as possible under a consolidated system, meeting a long-term state regulatory goal.
"As one of the (Ascension Parish) council members pointed out recently, in the future, the parish will have to think across parish boundaries to solve sewer problems and new partnerships will be needed to solve regional issues," Baudier said.
Under state law, utilities can operate and install infrastructure over parish lines, he said. The proposed Ascension Sewer system would be operated through a utility district the council is also set to expand.
Tom Pertuit, owner of Ascension Wastewater, told the Ascension Parish Council panel last month that he would not do a deal that doesn't include all his assets. He and Baudier noted that, if not, Pertuit would be trading his 2,800 private customers who are paying for themselves with about 3,000 Ascension Parish customers who are currently being subsidized with tax dollars.
"We would not be interested in selling part of our systems," Pertuit said.
While many private utilities serve customers in multiple parishes — Baton Rouge Water Co. supplies water to Ascension Parish residents — Public Service Commission officials have said they knew of no instance in the recent past where a local public entity operated and set rates for utility systems in a neighboring parish.
"It's very unique. Let's put it that way," said Colby Cook, commission spokesman.
The Public Service Commission must approve the transfer of Ascension Wastewater's utility assets to the new consortium and the company has a request pending. A status conference has been set for 10 a.m. Nov. 26.
But Ascension Parish Council members have said they have been informed by the Public Service Commission that nothing legally prevents such an arrangement and that the state agency's main concern will be fairness to the out-of-parish ratepayers.
Under the deal's terms, out-of-parish ratepayers couldn't be charged more than in-parish customers or be assessed extra fees.
East Baton Rouge Metro Councilman Trae Welch, who was not aware the sewer deal affected subdivisions in his district, said he also is concerned that his constituents would be subsidizing the Ascension system without a say in how that happened. He said he will begin looking to determine if the city-parish can connect some communities to its system.
But Ascension Parish Councilman Bill Dawson, who leaves office in January, aired just the opposite concern in a lengthy meeting last month. He suggested that Ascension ratepayers may have to subsidize operation of individual out-of-parish systems long-term as they age and water quality regulations tighten.
Dawson added he wasn't comfortable about setting rates for out-of-parish residents who have no recourse against him or other Ascension Parish Council members.
"The whole thing, it doesn't smell right to me," Dawson said.
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The proposal had been set for possible approval by the Ascension Parish Council on Thursday, but on Wednesday afternoon the council secretary's office sent out an amendment that scheduled the agreement for "review" only.
Ascension Parish Council Chairwoman Teri Casso said she wants to give people more time to examine recent council-requested changes to the proposed sewer agreement and for financial adviser Ernst & Young to assess the impact. If council members feel the changes are good, she said, she would try to schedule a final vote this year.
She said Ascension Sewer has made a number of concessions. “I think it's a much better contract today than it was a week ago and certainly a better contract than it was two months ago,” Casso said Wednesday.