Ascension Parish President-elect Clint Cointment and the private backers of a new regional sewer system for the parish ended a closed-door meeting Monday with an apparent path for a compromise on a proposed 30-year deal, officials said.
But negotiations continued Tuesday as Cointment and his advisers refined amendments to the Ascension Sewer LLC proposal even as the Parish Council chairwoman said she would like to have a vote on a final agreement no later than Dec. 16.
Cointment, who takes office in January, had asked the council in recent weeks to delay action on the proposal. He feared some of its provisions, including costly termination fees, could bankrupt the parish.
Ascension Sewer is a consortium of Bernhard Capital Partners and Ascension Wastewater Treatment, the largest sewer provider in Ascension.
Ascension Sewer’s proposed concession with the parish would bring together 19,500 customers of parish government and Ascension Wastewater and build a regional plant that would discharge treated wastewater into the Mississippi River. Eventually, the system's first $215 million phase could serve 35,000 customers.
Under the deal, residential rates would start at $57.90 a month and rise by 4% annually for the next 10 years, ending at $82.41 per month.
Cointment said Tuesday, however, that his opportunity to negotiate, while not yet parish president, has come with an understanding that a Parish Council vote on the deal would happen before the end of the year and before the new council and his administration take over.
His chance for due diligence isn’t as robust, Cointment added, as if he were parish president, when he could have months and a full staff to vet the proposal, but he said that if he had not taken the opportunity now, he risked a council vote before the end of year with no say on the deal.
“I’ve been given an opportunity to have input, and we’re trying to create a document that represents a true partnership,” he said.
Jeff Jenkins, one of the representatives of the Ascension Sewer and co-founder of Bernhard Capital Partners, said Cointment and his legal advisers left the meeting Monday with the intention of working on amendments to the proposed agreement.
Jenkins said he expects that process to take a few days before an amended draft is provided to the consortium for review and then shared with the sitting Parish Council, current administration and incoming council members.
Jenkins said he appreciates the hard work of Cointment and incoming Parish Councilman Chase Melancon have put into representing their constituents, adding it is important to have input from Cointment and new council members. The consortium will be working with those officials for next several years.
“We had a good meeting of the minds,” Jenkins said.
Six of 11 Parish Council seats will change hands in January.
In addition to Jenkins, Cointment and Melancon, others in the closed-door meeting Monday were outgoing Councilman Bill Dawson; Jeff Baudier, managing director of Bernhard Capital; and attorneys Tim Hardy and David Fleshman, two lawyers whom the parish hired to review the sewer proposal, according to Cointment.
No one from the current administration was part of the meeting.
News of apparent progress between Cointment and Ascension Sewer led parish officials to delay a planned vote on the deal at a special meeting Tuesday night in Gonzales and also raised hopes that a compromise was imminent.
"It just was too many changes to try to get that done and have all the information we needed for tonight," Parish Council Chairwoman Teri Casso said early Tuesday.
Casso, who did not attend Monday's meeting, said she has been told that Cointment agreed to support the deal if his concerns were addressed in the revised proposal.
"I want to emphasize that he gave his word and he said, 'His word was his bond,' so I'm very impressed with that," she said.
Even with a Parish Council vote, the Louisiana Public Service Commission must also bless the deal.
The outgoing administration and Parish Council have been working for months in public meetings and privately on the plan, but many major details, including the underlying financial structure and that the system would incorporate out-of-parish customers, only began to come to light starting in early October.
Earlier, in the late summer and fall, while the proposal was being negotiated privately, parish officials would not provide early drafts of the deal, which will be financed by the consortium's partners, future ratepayers and parish taxpayers.
Even as the deal has come to light, other aspects remain undisclosed or without a final resolution, including the exact location of a future sewer plant proposed for the Geismar area, any aid programs to defray costly hookup fees and the identity of the recipient of a $20 million payment planned in the first years of the deal.