Ascension council punts on sewer rate increase resolution

The Ascension Parish Council balked Wednesday at making a sweeping request of state regulators to block future sewer rate increases in the parish, fearing the resolution might hinder private investment in the sewer companies.

Two major sewer providers in Ascension — Ascension Wastewater Treatment Inc. and Mo-Dad Utilities LLC — have requested sizeable rate increases with the Louisiana Public Service Commission.

But parish officials are concerned the increases could hurt the parish’s ability to buy out private companies in an attempt to create a regional parish sewer system. Ascension Parish or a private company working on its behalf has tried to buy systems from both companies in the past three years without success.

On a 9-0 vote Wednesday, the council pushed back the nonbinding resolution for further consideration. Council Chairman Chris Loar does not vote unless to break to a tie. Councilwoman Teri Casso was absent.

Ascension Wastewater Treatment and Mo-Dad Utilities both have been under state Department of Environmental Quality orders to do massive upgrades to bring their systems into compliance with a host of regulations. Some council members have feared the companies would get the rate increases but still not improve their systems.

Robert Rieger Jr., attorney for Ascension Wastewater, told the council the company just completed $10 million in upgrades to comply with its DEQ order, now several years old.

“We believe that passing a resolution like this really does not send the correct message to private venture capital, folks that want to invest and do things,” Rieger told the council.

Tom Pertuit, owner of Ascension Wastewater, the largest in the parish, and other company officials were in the audience but did not address the council.

Councilman Benny Johnson, chairman of the council’s Utilities Committee, pushed for the resolution, saying it was not targeted at any one company but is intended to help the PSC understand the parish’s concerns as the agency vets future rate increases.

Several other members aired concerns about the resolution’s effect on companies that are trying to upgrade and keep up with state rules, pointing to Ascension Wastewater’s improvements.

Councilman Kent Schexnaydre argued for a resolution instead that would tell the PSC and legislators the parish wants the power to regulate sewer companies. The PSC and other state agencies have this power.

Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee proposed deferral after he was unable to verify whether Ascension Wastewater was out of compliance with DEQ, one of the concerns raised in the resolution.

Rieger asserted the company was in compliance; parish administration officials told Satterlee they did not know.

Celena Cage, DEQ Enforcement Division administrator, said in an interview earlier on Wednesday that agency inspections show that most of Ascension Wastewater systems are in significant compliance and the rest will be soon while the company is making significant progress on regulatory violations also raised in the order.

Mo-Dad has made some repairs but told the department it needs the rate increase to do major capital upgrades. Cage said that while the department recognizes the company has financial needs, “the department can no longer allow the company to operate out of compliance.”

She said one option is to ask a state court to enforce the order and pursue a formal penalty assessment.