Friday, May 24, 2024

Legislators want Edwards administration to spread around water, sewer money

by BIZ Magazine

By Julie O’Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator

Louisiana lawmakers put off a vote on funding 100 water and sewer projects worth $406.4 million Thursday after legislators raised concerns that too much of the money was going to Northshore parishes.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality recommended a single Northshore project – the combination of 10 sewer systems near the city of Amite in Tangipahoa Parish – receive $45 million. That’s more than twice as much as the next recommended project, a  $15 million upgrade to the Calcasieu Parish water system. 

Amite is Gov. John Bel Ewards’ hometown, but the Edwards administration said political influence had nothing to do with crafting the project list.

In all, the Edwards administration recommended Northshore area parishes – Tangipahoa, St. Tammany, Washington, St. Helena and Livingston – receive over half of the $170.6 million the state wants to spend on sewer projects. That didn’t sit well with lawmakers on the Water Sector Commission who have to approve the project list.

“I thought the equity and spread across the state would be considered,” Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said. “I don’t know how we justify spending half of the [sewer] money in one area.”

State officials with expertise in water and sewer management determined which systems that applied for funding needed the most help. Those with the most severe problems received a higher score and stood a better chance of getting recommended for funding. Water and sewer systems could also boost their chances of receiving money if they agreed to combine with other systems or to put up some of their own funding to complete a project. 

The Amite project scored high in terms of need and willingness to consolidate. Its total cost is expected to be around $93 million, the bulk of which would go toward a new water treatment facility that would serve combined smaller, rural systems.

Still, lawmakers said $45 million for one project seemed like a lot of money, when most of the water and sewer systems applying for the funding won’t receive any support. Less than half of the applicants who applied for money will get assistance. 

“It’s a huge amount … as much as what’s combined in all other regions,” Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, said. He suggested “looking at a way we could stretch those dollars.”

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said lawmakers never told the Edwards staff to take geography into account when making project recommendations. They didn’t spread the money across the state because they weren’t told to do so, he explained. 

“Equity to one applicant is going to be inequity to another applicant,” Dardenne said. 

Edwards and lawmakers devoted $450 million in federal COVID-19 relief money toward water and sewer projects this year, $44 million of which has been set aside to deal with potential cost overruns. That spending comes on top of $300 million the state spent on water and sewer upgrades last year, but it’s still not enough to meet the demand. 

Dardenne said he received almost a billion dollars worth of requests for water and sewer funding this year, more than twice as much as the state had to spend.  

“It’s pretty clear we don’t have all the resources we need to satisfy all the needs out there,” Dardenne said. 

Some systems in great need of repair didn’t even attempt to get relief. Most of Louisiana’s water systems are small, meaning they serve fewer than 3,330 people. Only 12% of those small systems filled out an application for funding. Lawmakers fear they aren’t applying for the money because they don’t have the in-house expertise to fill out the paperwork.

Dardenne said the state will be receiving about $600 million more in federal money to deal with “water and other infrastructure” that could help close the gap in demand. More projects could also be addressed next year through the state’s capital budget, which funds infrastructure and construction projects across the state.

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