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Louisiana legislators look to hold back $50 million from sewer and water projects

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Lawmakers on Louisiana’s Water Sector Commission recommended the state hold off on allocating the entire $450 million set aside for local water and sewer upgrades this year, citing concerns the money wouldn’t be spent evenly across the state.

The legislators disagreed with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration over where to distribute the funding and voted Monday to withhold $50 million from projects the governor’s team recommended.

They cut support for the consolidation of 10 sewer systems near the city of Amite from $45 million to $5 million and reduced money for a St. Tammany Parish sewer upgrade from $14.7 million to $5 million. Lawmakers also voted to keep another $48 million in reserves to deal with potential project cost overruns. In all, they recommended Louisiana spend $355 million on 106 projects.

Louisiana’s Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, which shares many members with the Water Sector Commission, is supposed to approve the final, revised project list Thursday.

The Amite project had been the most expensive one on the Edwards administration’s list, costing more than twice as much as any other water or sewer system upgrade. Amite is also the governor’s hometown, though administration officials said Edwards’ personal connection was not a factor in its selection.

The $355 million in water and sewer project funding this year comes on top of an initial $300 million allocated to water and sewer projects in 2021. But it’s still not enough to meet Louisiana’s pressing infrastructure demands.

The state received close to a billion dollars in requests for water and sewer upgrades from local governments, more than twice as much as it has to give in this budget cycle.

Lawmakers and the Edwards administration agreed to try and remove politics from the project selection process by developing a scoring process for the funding applications based on pre-existing criteria.

Projects with the most severe problems received more points 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 put up some of their own funding.

Geography was not supposed to be a factor in whether a project received money, but lawmakers have complained that the initial list did not spread the funding around the state enough. The Edwards administration had initially recommended the Northshore parishes – Tangipahoa, St. Tammany, Washington, St. Helena and Livingston – receive over half of the $170.6 million allocated to sewer projects across the state. That’s why legislators proposed pulling $50 million out of St. Tammany and Amite, which is located in Tangipahoa.

Where that $50 million will go now is unclear. Lawmakers suggested regions of the state that didn’t initially get as many water and sewer projects funded might receive the money. It could also go to smaller water and sewer systems that sometimes lack the in-house expertise to compete with bigger systems for funding.

Legislators didn’t say to what extent the current scoring method for projects would continue to be used, but some of the municipalities who just missed the cut for funding under that system hope it will remain a factor.

Mayors from Donaldsonville and the Rapides Parish town of Ball, population almost 3,000, showed up in person Monday to make their cases for getting water and sewer project money. Both communities just missed out on the initial allocation round and would likely receive money if the leftover $50 million went to the next round of projects on the current list.

Donaldsonville Mayor Leroy Sullivan said his city, with more than 6,700 residents, desperately needs the money to replace parts of its wastewater treatment system, which is still operating on equipment from the early 1900s.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.