Ascension raises sewer fees, puts new parishwide system in motion

Adam Pearson, Editor

Adam Pearson, Editor

Until now, plans to build a regional sewer system were just talk in Ascension Parish. Decades went by without action since public officials first began to publicly address the mounting pollution caused by underworking private systems scattered throughout the parish.

But last month the Ascension Parish Council agreed to raise the monthly flat fee for the parishwide sewer service by $12.50 — to $42.50 — as it seeks final approval for a low-interest $60 million loan from the state Department of Environmental Quality to build sewerage infrastructure.

The borrowed money would buy a new treatment plant to discharge treated effluent into the Mississippi River and build a system network along La. 73 and La. 42 — where work is partially covered by state road-widening projects that is underway and has yet to begin, respectively — and along Airline Highway from La. 73 to Bayou Manchac.

“This is the first step toward a parishwide sewer system,” Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez said.

New construction could begin in less than a year on the sewerage project following approval of the 0.95 percent interest loan and environmental work, Martinez said.

Until recently, the DEQ was offering a loan of only $18 million to begin work. But after several meetings with parish officials, the scope of work needed in the parish was broadened and the state department tripled its loan offering, said Ken Dawson, chief administrative officer of Ascension Parish.

“In no way does this solve all the problems of treatment in Ascension Parish; this is just the beginning,” Dawson said.

In fact, estimates have put the cost of an entirely new sewerage system on the east bank of the parish at about $700 million to $750 million.

Dawson said he thinks that is a very conservative figure, but only time will tell as a new network is built and connected in coming decades.

Councilman Benny Johnson, who chairs the Parish Council’s Utilities Committee, said the parish has been losing “several hundred thousand dollars a year” with the old monthly flat sewer fee of $30 and that parish accounting officials have been “recommending to us as a council for years to raise those rates.”

Johnson said the new fee still won’t cover the cost of building a parishwide system, but it will largely stanch the hemorrhaging of money from the parish’s general fund. He added that growth in the parish could help the parish lower the monthly fee in the future with the consideration of additional revenue sources.

Earlier this summer, parish officials worried the federal Environmental Protection Agency would implement a consent decree to improve current wastewater systems in the parish if it didn’t build its own treatment system.

Martinez said inaction also threatened growth in the parish, with the DEQ increasingly warning of a stop to issuing permits for wastewater systems.

“We put off a lot in years past,” said Martinez, noting that raising fees for wastewater treatment has been a difficult issue to broach with the public since an under-serving system is not as easily recognizable as say, a bad road.

But it was time for the parish to take a proactive approach to ensure future growth is sustainable, Martinez said.

The council agreed to dedicate $3.3 million from the general fund to debt service each year on the loan.

“It’s a big first step, and I’m proud that we can do this, and I’m thankful that the DEQ will allow us to do this,” Martinez said.