GONZALES — The Ascension Parish Council is poised to consider a contested 30-year contract Friday night that would consolidate sewer service in the Dutchtown, Prairieville and Gonzales areas, after a state appellate panel threw out a lower court order that had previously blocked any action until next year.
But the Gonzales lawyer who filed the original suit that led to the lower court order said he has already filed another suit to block action. He added that he expects other suits could follow from other plaintiffs.
Jean-Paul Robert's latest suit, known as a temporary restraining order, was pending early Thursday evening, he said, and mirrors what he filed Monday over the lack of adequate public access to the documents behind the deal.
"It's not gonna be just Sean Dardeau this time. It's gonna be an avalanche," said Robert, who is representing Dardeau, a Geismar-area car salesman fighting council action on the sewer contract.
GONZALES — Hours from a final vote Monday by the Ascension Parish Council on a 30-year deal to bring regional sewer service to Ascension Paris…
A special meeting of the Parish Council was called Thursday evening for Friday at 6 p.m. and also, for Friday at 7 p.m., a meeting of a special parish utilities district, which is also composed of the council members. The bodies are expected to cast a series votes allowing the sewer proposal to go forward.
Several councilmen leaving another meeting Thursday night said they are prepared to vote Friday if the court doesn't block them again. Some said they would be supporting the deal.
Councilman Daniel "Doc" Satterlee, an outgoing, two-term member who has championed a sewer fix for years but has faced intense criticism over the Ascension Sewer deal, said the proposed agreement is the product of years of work and investigations of other ideas, including having the parish go it alone, that don't work financially without access to the existing private customer base in the parish.
"I think the contract has been worked on and worked on and worked on, so I feel comfortable with it," added William Daniel, the parish infrastructure director. "I think most of the council does. It's just a matter of being able to have a hearing and having people show up to vote."
The deal with Ascension Sewer LLC, a consortium of Bernhard Capital Partners and Ascension Wastewater Treatment, would involve building one new regional plant in the Geismar area to replace dozens of small, neighborhood-sized treatment plants in eastern Ascension.
About 19,500 customers of parish government and Ascension Wastewater would fall under the agreement, including 2,800 Ascension Wastewater customers located outside Ascension Parish. The parish contract would give Ascension government control through the consortium over Ascension Wastewater's 16,500 customers and their rates.
Ascension Wastewater is the largest private sewer provider in the parish and relies heavily on these small sewer plants. The new regional plant would dump cleansed wastewater into the Mississippi River and avoid tightened regulatory restrictions on the discharges into polluted ditches and bayous left by the smaller sewer plants.
The Ascension Parish Council's leadership has finished negotiating a 30-year sewer concession and plans a binding vote Monday, over the object…
But the customers would see an immediate rate increase if the deal is approved. Rates would start at $57.90 per month for residential customers and more for commercial customers, and the rates would increase by 4% per year for the first 10 years. The first phase of the system is expected to cost $215 million.
Parish officials have emphasized the cost of not acting. Ascension Wastewater is likely to cut its own deal with Bernhard Capital, depriving the parish of an important customer base, they say. Also, costs to run and upgrade the parish's existing systems would drive a $13 million to $27 million shortfall over the next 20 years at a starting rate of about $60 per month.
Following months of talks with the sitting Parish Council and their lawyers, newly elected council members and Parish President-elect Clint Cointment began raising concerns about the deal. He and others aired worries about the speed with which the final versions of the deal were being pushed through the council and about a number of provisions, including termination fees, that Cointment says could bankrupt the parish.
Earlier attempts at a final vote were halted so Cointment could try to negotiate with Ascension Sewer. While both sides suggested some progress was being made, Council Chairwoman Teri Casso cut off those talks Dec. 11 after, she said, the two sides became stuck on some details.
A recent estimate from financial analysts working for the parish says the termination fees could vary greatly, from $15 million near the end of the agreement to $187 million in year five. At that point, the consortium would have spent the most cash and taken out the most debt to build the new system but without much time to collect month sewer fees to start paying off the costs. The termination fees are designed to reimburse the consortium partners for their unreimbursed costs plus their rate of return.
Jeff Jenkins, co-founder of Bernhard Capital, has disputed fears about the termination fees, calling it a red herring. He said that even if either side did pull out and termination fees were due, the parish still would control the customers who could pay off those fees.
As part of the deal, both the council and its utilities district must vote to transfer the sewer assets of Ascension Wastewater to the district, which means the parish would then own them.
Under an agreement also up for a vote Friday, the consortium would pay Ascension Wastewater, an equity partner in Ascension Sewer that will draw profits from ratepayers, an undisclosed sum for that infrastructure. Ratepayers would cover almost all the costs of the partnership, which projects an 8% return on investment.
Meanwhile, an East Baton Rouge Parish city-parish attorney said the city-parish government is working on an agreement to link up about 1,100 to 1,400 of Ascension Wastewater's customers now in the Ascension Sewer deal to the city-parish system.
Ascension Sewer officials had earlier suggested those out-of-parish customers would help defray sewer rates for the deal in Ascension. But Jenkins said that if another agreement is reached with the city-parish for the East Baton Rouge customers, that agreement would be revenue neutral for the Ascension Sewer agreement.
The state Public Service Commission must also ratify the transfer of Ascension Wastewater's sewer assets.
The flurry of activity Thursday evening was prompted by an order midday Thursday from a three-judge panel on the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.
The panel rejected Judge Jessie LeBlanc's order Monday enjoining the Parish Council from voting on Ascension Sewer until at least Jan. 7. Cointment and six new members of the 11-person council are expected to be inaugurated Jan. 6.