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Ascension Parish government searching for solutions to outdated water system

Michael Tortorich

During the Oct. 6 meeting, the Ascension Parish Utilities Committee voted to send an item to the full council regarding a federal grant application for water systems Parish Utilities of Ascension and Ascension Consolidated Utilities District 1.

The Ascension Parish Council’s Alvin “Coach” Thomas asks a question during the Oct. 6 Utiltiies Committee meeting.

The total grant is for about $17 million, according to Infrastructure Director Ken Dawson. One portion is a low-interest USDA loan, which has been approved, he said.

Chief Administrative Officer John Diez said, from an administrative standpoint, the plan is to focus on generating revenue from replacement meters and looking into the loan next year.

“The federal government is waiting for us to tell them how we’re going to pay for it. And we can’t pay for it from current revenues from PUA,” Diez told the committee.

Also, he said the loan is for PUA and ACUD 1, which falls into the same category as ACUD 2. General fund money cannot be used to subsidize it.

“So you’re running into a bunch of problems,” Diez said. “The best approach would be to slow down, improve those meters, generate more revenue, maybe make this thing self-supporting and self-generating over the year, and look at it again next year.”

Diez pointed out that he expects the low-interest loan will be available later, if parish leaders pass this time.

Council member Alvin “Coach” Thomas, who represents the Donaldsonville area, asked about the two rate hikes that were sold as a way to improve pipes and change meters for the roughly 3,000 PUA customers.

“That won’t be done? We won’t even touch the pipes is what you’re saying? We’ll just do the meters?” Thomas asked.

Dawson said the goal is to increase revenue. The replacement of pipes is not included in the plan, he said.

Diez recalled a memo where it was stated that Peoples Water Company, which sold the water system to the parish three years ago, was operating at a loss at the time and is still operating at a loss.

He added that the Public Service Commission approved a 63 percent rate increase to cover the cost of operating and maintaining the facility. The approved rate would allow the utility to operate at a standard 8 percent profit margin.

Diez said the rate is about 20 percent less than what is needed to operate.

“I know that we went up and maybe made some promises we can’t fulfill,” Diez said.

“We definitely did that,” Thomas replied.

Later in the discussion, Diez acknowledged that everyone agrees the replacements need to be done.

“This is an old, outdated system, but when you look at all the problems we’re having with all of our utilities systems, now is not the time,” Diez said.

Thomas expressed concerns about delaying the work and potentially costing customers more.

“We need it done for sure,” Thomas said. “The pipes are outdated; the meters are outdated. People are paying the cost of two increases already. It seems as though, to me, the more you delay, the more the cost is going to go up for the people’s water bills.”

Thomas said he has been getting calls from frustrated customers who receive inconsistent water bills. Parish officials expect the readings to be accurate once the new meters are installed.

“We are going to move forward with the meters,” Dawson said.

Council member Joel Robert, whose district represents a portion of the west bank, echoed the frustration of Thomas.

“We have inherited a mess, without a doubt,” Robert said. “I’ve told constituents the same thing I’m going to tell you: We’re going to fix this mess.”

Robert suggested selling PUA and ACUD 1 to a private company.

Council member Travis Turner said he did not recall many private buyers being interested in the water system prior to the parish’s purchase.

Dawson recalled only the parish and the City of Donaldsonville were looking into buying it at the time.

“Let’s make it perfectly clear. We inherited this situation. We need to fix it, and we need to serve our own people,” Thomas said.

Though the water system previously had issues resulting in boil-water advisories in past years, Dawson said the water quality has been “very good” based on recent reports.

“I’ll copy that and email that to all of you. I’m kind of proud of that achievement,” Dawson said.

The committee voted 4-1 to move the matter to the full council in order to consider a budget amendment to finance the loan, and access the grant.

Council member Aaron Lawler was the lone objector, saying he felt the motion was premature.

In other matters concerning parish government last week:

-- During the Oct. 6 Recreation Committee meeting, Recreation Director BJ Romano said the lighting project plans have been finalized for Butch Gore, Stevens, and St. Amant parks.

The bidding should begin soon, and the timeline is estimated at six months, according to Romano.

Also, he said the skate park is going out for bids. The estimated $125,000 project is projected to be complete in January 2021.

The department will also add culverts to improve drainage at the Lemannville park, Romano added.

Lawler said the Major League Baseball Association committed $10 million for grants to increase diversity in baseball.

“One of the areas we can do that is in Donaldsonville,” Lawler said.

Thomas said the “La La” Regira baseball field in Donaldsonville is one of the best in the state, but can still use some improvements.

Romano said some temporary repairs have been done to the field, but now they are looking into permanent work.

He added that he has researched the diversity grant, and the administration has been on board with applying.

“We’re going to jump on it as quickly as we can, and get everything lined up for it,” Romano said.

“It does sound like something we can possibly get together, especially to help out on the west side,” he added.

-- During the Oct. 6 Finance Committee meeting, cooperative endeavor agreements with the Jambalaya Festival Association and Ascension Economic Development Corporation were approved.

Chair John Cagnolatti said the $20,000 to JFA is the same amount given in the past for marketing and public relations. 

The AEDC amount was $322,800. The not-for-profit corporation’s sole mission is to maximize economic opportunity in Ascension Parish.

AEDC President and CEO Kate MacArthur mentioned CF Industries’ latest announcement to invest $14.4 million in its Donaldsonville complex. Also, Renewable Energy Group announced at least an $825 million capital investment in expanding its renewable diesel refinery in Geismar.

“We’ve had a big week here, and it’s very exciting,” MacArthur said.

After hearing the revenue and expenditure report, Cagnolatti said the parish’s finances seem to be in good shape.

“All things considered with COVID and everything else, tax revenues are there because of the big stores, the grocery stores. Small businesses, bars, and restaurants might be hurting a little bit, but we’re holding our own. That’s good news,” Cagnolatti said.