The Ascension Parish Council's leadership has finished negotiating a 30-year sewer concession and plans a binding vote Monday, over the objections of the incoming parish president who says council leaders backed out on their promise to let him work on the agreement.

The deal with Ascension Sewer LLC would achieve a goal parish officials have sought for generations: consolidating community package plants under one regional system and pulling discharge waters from polluted ditches and bayous and sending them to the Mississippi River.

Rates would also rise for more than 19,000 parish government and private sewer customers, and incoming parish officials have aired worries about the deal's financial impact on parish government.

With the vote imminent, Ascension Parish President-elect Clint Cointment said Friday the Parish Council leadership "reneged" on allowing him time to negotiate and pulled the plug on talks Wednesday despite the strides being made.

Council Chairwoman Teri Casso said later on Friday that Cointment got the opportunity to provide input. But, she said, that ended Wednesday when it appeared he was unwilling to offer a concession on an important sticking point.

"We ended negotiations with him. His input was complete, and his position was clear, and that's when his input ended," she said. "Certainly, there were continued negotiations, which he was just not a part of."

The council leadership's negotiations continued through Thursday and a final draft of the deal, which Casso said includes some of Cointment's requested changes, was distributed Thursday night to the sitting Parish Council.

The incoming council and Cointment were sent copies on Friday morning, she said. Copies began circulating to the public late Friday morning.

Casso said Cointment's negotiations led to a better document, but she said he would not back down from his proposal that the parish administration be given the ability to back out of the deal up to six months after the agreement is signed. 

“Mr. Cointment had unrealistic expectations of the contract. We had to negotiate in good faith to the extent that both parties were willing to move forward, and this is the final outcome. The council will vote on it,” she said.

The council is scheduled to vote Monday night in Gonzales to approve the deal, transfer private sewer assets to the parish and set new sewer rates guaranteed as part of the agreement.

Outgoing Parish President Kenny Matassa's administration worked for months with the current council, which has six departing members, on a deal with Ascension Sewer.  Cointment and the new council members take office on Jan. 6 and will have to live with the agreement the outgoing council votes on Monday evening.

Ascension Sewer is proposing a 30-year concession to consolidate sewer service in the eastern portion of the parish. The $215 million first phase of construction would unite 19,500 parish government and private sewer customers.

Rates would start at $57.90 per month for residential customers and more for commercial customers, increasing by 4% per year for the first 10 years. The latest version of the deal allows rate negotiations at 5, 10 and 15 years for future expansion plans or to cover unforeseen construction costs over a certain threshold, legal changes or more expensive financing costs.

About 2,800 of the deal's private customers actually reside in East Baton Rouge, Livingston or Iberville parishes. They would have their rates set by the Ascension council and help defray the cost of the Ascension system, though only some might eventually be linked to the regional system, consortium officials have said.

The state Public Service Commission must approve such a transfer of sewer assets. The city-parish government in East Baton Rouge Parish has asked for a say in that vote while it also seeks to negotiate an agreement for Ascension Wastewater customers in that parish, officials said. 

The Ascension sewer system, which could ultimately serve 35,000 customers, is a consortium that includes Bernhard Capital Partners, a private equity fund headed by former Shaw Group top boss Jim Berhnard, and Ascension Wastewater Treatment, the largest private sewer provider in Ascension.

The deal would require financing and upfront cash from both the partnership and Ascension Parish taxpayers. The parish would have to put up $15.8 million in upfront tax revenue, while the consortium would put up $71 million in cash, a financial analysis says. Another $129 million in public and private debt would be sought.

The deal would also involve Ascension Sewer's purchase of Ascension Wastewater's sewer assets for an undisclosed price not described in the draft deal nor by Ascension Sewer officials. 

The sewer company would remain an equity partner in the deal and share in the expected rate of return of 8%. Ratepayers would pay back the costs and rate of return on investment.  

Cointment's announcement Friday is something of a twist, as his transition officials and Bernhard officials said earlier in the week that negotiations were going well and appeared headed for a vote Monday. In the statement Friday, Cointment credited Bernhard Capital for "being open and willing to negotiate."

"But for the life of me I can’t understand why the current council has pulled the plug on continued negotiations," he added. "Furthermore, I find it confusing that after the 2016 flood, this same council took three years to correct the parish’s fill ordinances, yet here they are trying to railroad a last-minute $215 million dollar contract.”

Cointment also asserted that two earlier versions of the deal on the parish website early Friday would "jeopardize the parish's financial stability" and said he could not support them, though he wasn't sure which the council would consider Monday.

His comments came before the latest version of the contract — the one Casso referenced — was posted online late Friday morning. A member of Cointment's transition team, Ruth Phillips, said he was reviewing the latest version. 

Cointment said he's concerned about the speed with which the deal was being considered, the lack of public review of its fine details, the no-bid nature of the parish's decision to open negotiations with Ascension Sewer and the 25-month exclusive negotiating period the parish agreed to with the consortium.

"All of those items, I have to say, have a sense of concerns of being unethical," Cointment said.

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