Exorbitant water bills are one of the reasons Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-New Orleans, said she has sponsored a bill to make the Sewerage & Water Board answerable to the city council. (Canva image)
The New Orleans City Council wants to increase accountability for the Sewerage & Water Board. To do so requires approval from the Louisiana Legislature, which historically stays out of most local matters.
Not surprisingly, the city’s mayor opposes the idea, and she’s convinced most of the lawmakers from New Orleans to take her side. But there’s now momentum in Baton Rouge to establish council oversight, partly because not taking any action could have lawmakers fielding complaints from ratepayers.
Exorbitant water bills, frequent boil advisories and storm flooding are the norm for Sewerage & Water Board customers, said state Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-New Orleans. She has sponsored House Bill 652 to make the utility answerable to the city council.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who chairs the S&WB’s governing board, opposes Hilferty’s proposal. Despite having the delegation in her corner on the issue, Hilferty’s bill advanced Monday from a House committee.
Councilman at-large J.P. Morrell, a former state lawmaker, appeared before the House Commerce Committee to argue in favor of the bill and highlight deficiencies of the Sewerage & Water Board.
“It is an obtuse agency that … all the members are completely appointed by the mayor, and it is unfortunate for the public that the ability for the council to have transparency with the Sewerage & Water Board is subject to the whims of the mayor,” Morrell said.
Council members frequently receive customers complaints regarding the Sewerage & Water Board but have no ability to address them, he added. The Hilferty bill would require utility officials to appear more frequently before the council and provide more reports than called for under existing city ordinances.
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“I don’t know why the Sewerage & Water Board still exists,” Morrell said, explaining that, in most cities, the municipal government handles water, drainage and sewer services. The Legislature created the Sewerage & Water Board in 1899, with the councilman explaining it was because the state had concerns at the time that the dysfunctional and corrupt city government could not handle basic sanitation services.
“It is a relic of an older age, and we are saddled with it because it is so riddled with a variety of bond issuances and millages that to get rid of it overnight would be nigh impossible,” Morrell said.
Hilferty and Morrell focused Monday on the Sewerage & Water Board’s billing woes, which have persisted despite spending millions on a new system over the past seven years. More than 60% of customer bills are estimated, Morrell said, because the agency does not have the human resources to check water meters in person.
In an interview with the Illuminator, Monika Gerhart, the mayor’s director of federal and state relations, disputed information Morrell shared with the committee. She said the Sewerage & Water Board estimates just 11% of customer bills, and the utility currently has 39 of 60 meter reader positions filled.
The Sewerage & Water Board continues to make progress toward an automated meter system, with officials in the process of procuring a project manager, Gerhart said. She anticipates the system to be up and running sometime in the fourth quarter of 2022.
Rep. Candace Newell, D-New Orleans, opposes Hilferty’s bill. She said the Sewerage & Water Board’s new customer service director has not been given enough time to address billing concerns, which Newell said was made more difficult when the COVID-19 pandemic forced employees to work remotely.
Morrell responded that billing problems were present well before the pandemic. He cited examples of customers on fixed income who are charged for the Sewerage & Water Board’s mistakes, including retroactive billing of customers who weren’t charged enough.
Gerhart said data from the Sewerage & Water Board show 80% of customers who go through an administrative hearing to dispute their bills receive an adjustment. An average of more than 200 administrative hearings take place monthly, she said.
She also challenged Morrell’s claim that the Sewerage & Water could only reduce dramatic overbilling instances by half, explaining that such bills could be cut up to 100%.
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Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, told Hilferty and Morrell his concern with the bill was that it would give the New Orleans City Council “wholesale authority” to reduce customer bills, an action Morrell said the council would never take out of fiscal responsibility.
Duplessis also asked why the New Orleans delegation wasn’t consulted on Hilferty’s bill or the amendments brought forward Monday. Morrell said he planned to meet with lawmakers once the bill was scheduled in committee, but Cantrell spoke to the delegation when he and Hilferty were not present and “trashed the bill” and got commitments from lawmakers to oppose it.
“After hearing from members with an egregious amount of misinformation the mayor was spewing at that meeting, it became evident… that ship has sailed,” Morrell said.
Gerhart said Morrell’s recollection of events was incorrect. She said the city reached out to Hilferty before and after her bill was filed and received no response.
“The delegation and the city both kept in the dark despite multiple requests for information,” Gerhart said.
Duplessis moved to recommit Hilferty’s bill to the House Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee, which Newell had pointed out is where Sewerage & Water Board bills have been handled in the past. The motion failed.
Hilferty’s bill was advanced from Commerce in a 10-3 vote, with Duplessis, Newell and Rep. Kyle Green, D-Marrero, opposed. It heads next to the House floor.
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