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Advocate staff photo by David J. Mitchell – A new $2.1 million wastewater treatment line goes over the levee and heads Wednesday to the Mississippi River in Hillaryville in southeastern Ascension Parish as dignitaries chat on the top of the levee before they head down for a ribbon cutting ceremony moments afterward. Parish, state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials marked on Wednesday completion of the line built through a joint parish-corps project.

Ascension Parish officials took an important step toward deciding whether to sell the parish's public sewer infrastructure in a proposed deal to bring long-sought regional service to the east bank.

They've hired firms to determine what their sewer assets are worth.

For years, parish officials had sought to build a regional sewer system either solely through parish resources, grants and loans or through a public-private partnership, but multiple attempts have failed to bear fruit as past parish leaders have been unable to agree on the terms and sewer rates tied to any of those proposals.

The last private partner to try such a deal, Ascension Sewer, a consortium that includes former Shaw Group chief Jim Bernhard's private equity firm, recently flipped the well-worn script.

The group now wants to buy the parish out of the sewer business through an entity that already owns the bulk of private sewer systems in the parish and build an entirely private $200 million regional system for the east bank, consolidating its plants and the parishes'. The parish has around 2,000 customers.

Environmental regulators have encouraged the parish to build a regional system that dumps into the Mississippi River and ends discharges into local bayous and ditches by smaller neighborhood package plants.

Any sale would require a parishwide vote, possibly as soon as the Dec. 5 ballot, parish officials have said.

The idea has quickly gained some traction and, on Thursday, the Parish Council agreed to hire three firms at a combined cost of up to $101,540 to appraise the value of the parish's sewer assets and related land holdings.

Two firms, Hartman Consultants LLC and Goodman Appraisal Consultants, will evaluate the sewer infrastructure, each acting as a check on the other. The third, Vista Appraisal Services Inc., will evaluate the parish's land assets, parish officials said. 

Parish officials said before the vote Thursday that the firms that specialize in sewer system appraisals don't really do land appraisals. Under the contracts, however, Goodman will review Vista's land appraisals.

"We wanted to protect the public and ourselves from any implication that we did not do a thorough evaluation of those assets," Council Chair Teri Casso said in an interview after the vote.

Under a 30-year agreement that sets the stage for such a sale, National Water Infrastructure, which would buy the systems and is the successor to longtime sewer provider Ascension Wastewater Treatment, would also run the parish systems in the interim.

NWI is owned by Bernhard Capital Partners Management, the financial muscle in the buyout bid, and also by the former owners of Ascension Wastewater, the largest private sewer company in the state with nearly 17,000 customers who are largely in Ascension.

The deal also calls for 30 years of franchise fees to the parish, even after a sale, and a $15 million upfront payment that would be credited against the cost of any final sale price, Ascension Sewer officials said.

Last week, parish officials expressed hope they could have a final vote on that agreement by Sept. 17, but the parish council chair cautioned that date might be too optimistic.

Casso said some of the appraisals are expected to take at least 30 days and parish attorneys are determining if a vote on the agreement, which only contains an option to buy, can happen before the appraisals are done.

Parish President Clint Cointment has not weighed in on the proposal but said in a recent meeting the plan, which he said could ultimately be worth $1 billion, needs significant research.

As Ascension developed over the past several decades, parish officials largely allowed developers and private operators to create the east bank's sewer infrastructure outside the city of Gonzales and town of Sorrento.

But the parish also took over a handful of once troubled neighborhood sewer systems through the years and more recently began to build out public infrastructure, running major sewer trunk lines under La. 42 and La. 73 in the Prairieville area.

State highway and environmental officials required the parish to build the lines and related treatment systems before the state would widen the highways. The La. 42 widening is close to being finished after more than six years, a project that faced significant delays due to the parish sewer line project. Both pipeline projects, combined, cost somewhere around $15 million to $16 million.

The parish had also recently tried to start planning for growth in the Burnside area with package plants in the Hillaryville/Darrow area that have a new discharge point to the Mississippi River, a first for the parish.

The line was finished in late 2017 with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through a combination of Corps and parish dollars at a cost of $2.1 million. The parish also has received several million dollars in federal grant money to expand and beef up the treatment and collection system in the area.

The parish has also become more aggressive about enforcing rules that strongly encourage developers of new neighborhoods to turn over their treatment systems and collection lines to the parish. Before, those systems had been provided to private operators like the onetime Ascension Wastewater.

All this work and increased enforcement has boosted the miles of parish sewer lines 2.5 times over the past few years, rising from 14 to 35 miles between 2015 and 2019, the latest parish audit says. 

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.