Proponents of a deal to sell the wastewater treatment system on the east bank of Ascension Parish to a private company owned by Baton Rouge businessman Jim Bernhard’s private equity firm, Bernhard Capital Partners, have formed a PAC and are raising money to generate public support for the sale, which will go before parish voters for approval later this month.
The Clean Byways and Better Highways PAC was created in early March by former parish council member Bill Dawson, who says it has raised around $40,000 so far, a number that is expected to grow.
Dawson says the money will be used primarily to fund a media campaign that will start airing in the days to come.
Ironically, Dawson, while on the council, was among those who opposed efforts in 2019 by Bernhard’s company to take over the Ascension Parish sewer system. Parish President Clint Cointment also opposed the earlier effort and, shortly after his election in late 2019 but before he took office in 2020, worked to scuttle a contract between the outgoing parish council and Bernhard’s company, then called Ascension Sewer.
Now Dawson and Cointment are among those advocating for the deal with the Bernhard company, which has since acquired the longtime local sewer treatment company, Ascension Wastewater Treatment, and changed its name to National Water Infrastructure.
The reason for what Cointment, admittedly, calls a “180-degree turn,” is that the terms of the deal have changed and are now more favorable for the parish.
“The old deal was a P3. This is us selling our assets to them,” he says. “The PSC will regulate the rates and get us out of the sewer business. We never should have gotten into the sewer business.”
Under the terms of the new deal, the parish would sell its east bank system to NWI, which would agree to pay an annual franchise fee for 20 years that will start at $500,000 and escalate as new customers are added.
NWI currently has about 17,000 customers in the parish.
In exchange, the company will invest some $200 million developing a new regional treatment plant.
Cointment says the deal will save the parish $3.2 million a year that it currently spends subsidizing the cost of the small, disconnected parish system.
What remains unchanged between the old deal and the new one is that eventually ratepayers in Ascension will see their utility bills increase. For now, no one is able to say by how much.
But Cointment and Dawson say the aging infrastructure in the parish is so costly and inefficient that sooner or later it will have to be modernized and should that upgrade come as the result of a federal consent decree then it will cost much more than any potential rate hikes.
What’s more, they say because NWI, a private company, will own the sewer treatment system, the Public Service Commission, not the parish council, will be in charge of setting rates
As for why Dawson is involved in raising money for the effort on behalf of NWI, he says he’s been working as an unpaid adviser to Cointment since leaving office and believes the deal is in the best interest of the parish.
“This deal is going to free up huge sums of money for the people in the parish to help pay for some desperately needed things,” he says.
The election is scheduled for April 24.