Jay Dardenne (copy)

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne.

The legislature approved 29 projects – spending $22.9 million of federal money – to upgrade ancient water systems for small municipalities and rural parishes around the state, including those in Harahan, Livonia, Independence, and Port Barré.

The Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget on Wednesday approved the spending in what will be the first round of money spent on trying to fix the hundreds of poorly maintained drinking water and sewerage systems – many built half century ago – that aren’t up to code. The second round of the money, most of it, will distributed after the legislative panel meets on Jan. 25.

“The intent is moving these projects forward, getting these critical projects on the ground as soon as possible. But ensuring that we’re doing that with the best utilization of these funds,” said state Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, the Houma Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and co-chairs the Water Section Commission that is charged with grading the applications from local governments.

This first round of applications approved Wednesday were projects that the Legislature already okayed as part of the state’s construction budget. The plan was to use federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 for the 29 projects, which would free up nearly $23 million in state funds that could be used for other state projects, Zeringue said.

Fourteen of the 29 local governments haven’t provided all the information necessary for turning these state projects into federal projects, said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne. The federal government has detailed procedures and requirements for the use of federal money so that audits can be done to ensure that taxpayer money spent as promised.

“But once we have the information and we get the documentation signed, they will get their money fairly quickly,” Dardenne said.

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House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, was more to the point, warning senators and representatives to get with local officials and make sure the requested data has been turned over. “If that information is requested and we do not get that information,” he said, the applications “will not be approved. You need to get with your locals.”

For the second phase, local will compete for about $300 million in ARP money.

Dardenne noted that the amount approved by legislators is nowhere near enough to address the applications already submitted, which are but a fraction of the systems that need repairs that will cost billions of dollars.

Almost 550, totally more than $1 billion, have been received for the state Water Section Commission to consider and grade. The Commission will recommend the joint budget committee should fund. Legislators are expected to vote on Jan. 25.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.