P-1 Photo -- Sen. Womack.jpg

STATE SENATOR Glen Womack of Harrisonburg asks questions during the Water Sector Commission meeting Oct. 26 in Baton Rouge

Legislators peppered government officials with questions regarding the application process of water sector grants, saying paperwork and federal requirements were a “bureaucratic nightmare” for rural communities.

The Water Sector Commission met Oct. 26 in Baton Rouge to find answers to questions just four days before the Nov. 1 application deadline. Local lawmakers, Sen. Glen Womack and Rep. Neil Riser, sit on the commission and were among those asking questions.

Topping questions were concerns over requirements for engineer-provided cost estimates, a requirement for federal procurement. 

Procurement mandates were especially hard on rural communities who struggled with application forms and locating engineers, according to Rep. Jeremy LaCombe, Water Sector Commission member. LaCombe represents District 18 which includes parts of Iberville, Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge, and West Feliciana parishes.

“I represent a very rural area,” LaCombe said. “(Municipalities) don’t have a staff of engineers. They are basically trying to get some of the same engineering groups that submit a lot of these applications to work on this. I am disturbed by the fact that some of these rural places are going to have trouble to meet any kind of need to get these projects. They are struggling to meet these requirements of procurement. It’s looking like a bureaucratic nightmare.”

Womack also expressed concerns over smaller towns having disadvantages.

“I have some concerns with the landscape of our state and so many rural systems that in no way can put up that kind of money,” Womack said. “It is going to throw a problem when the rural systems having to pull back and trying to get procurement. At the end of the day, I would like to see something where we utilize the money statewide rather than just our larger municipalities that have deep pocketbooks.” 

Tracy Lockman with Office of Community Development was adamant about municipalities following federal procurement requirements if they were going to use federal money to pay for engineering costs.

“If they are using the water sector funds to pay engineering fees, we would be using the procurements, and if they choose to use their ARP funds then they will have to make sure they follow the federal procurement requirements,” Lockman said.

Jay Dardenne, Commissioner of Administration, advised lawmakers rural municipalities should go ahead and apply.

“Let them apply and see what happens and then try to evaluate whether it is local dollars that could be applied to an application,” Dardenne said. 

According to Chance McNeely, with American Council On Engineering Companies of Louisiana (ACEC), larger cities would not have a problem paying for engineering services, but smaller towns were concerned about grant funds being “called back” due to not following federal requirements.

“For smaller governments who may need to use federal funds, they are worried they will submit and then get the funds called back later,” McNeely said. “OCD said they were not going to review applications on the front end whether or not you followed the federal procurement rules, and it was your responsibility as a municipality to do that.”

Additionally, Water Sector funds were designed for consolidating rural systems and creating a mechanism to improve systems, according to Dardenne. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has been stumping for rural water systems to consolidate for years. In a 2019 Winnsboro meeting, Toye Taylor, deputy chief of staff for Edwards,called local mayors to consider consolidating.

Water Sector Commission co-chair and state Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue from Houma, said it was going to be difficult to get municipalities to consolidate systems. “Part of the problem is there’s almost a disincentive to get people to consolidate the way we have it right now because it’s difficult enough for one entity to try to develop an application,” Zeringue said. “If you try to get several municipalities working together, who’s going to pay for it? How are they going to do it?”

Meanwhile, Mark Moses with Division of Administration said 293 water sector applications were received into the system portal.

Moses broke the applications into two categories: Submitted and created. In the submitted, applications were complete and in the created, applications were submitted but not completely finished.

System portal showed 66 created applications with 12 being capital outlay. The 66 represented $170 million in requests.

Beyond the created applications, 227 projects remained, representing $305 million in requests, according to Moses.

Dardenne estimated legislators will have the opportunity to review water sector applications the first week of December, so they will have an opportunity to make funding recommendations later that month.

“At the end of the day, there are going to be applicants that aren’t going to be funded,” Dardenne said. “There is going to be a demand that greatly exceeds the $300 million. That is just going to be the reality. I don’t think the federal spigot has been turned off yet for this infrastructure bill and the other bills they are debating. Seems like there is more money coming, and you are going to determine how that money is spent.”

Louisiana Legislature created the Water Sector Commission to distribute $300 million in federal pandemic aid. Eligible water systems can receive up to $5 million and potentially more for consolidating water systems. A second round of funding will open in January.

Many local, rural communities are in desperate need of water and waste water system upgrades. Large number of systems are 40 to 50 years old and showing signs of aging.

Riser gave a bleak glimpse into Louisiana’s water and sewer infrastructure if matters were not addressed in an earlier Suninterview.

“Here is the number to remember,” Riser said. “2030 is crisis and 2050 is critical mass on water. It is now 2021. We have to do something now. This is a big deal.”

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