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Landrieu proposes S&WB reform

26th November 2012   ·   0 Comments

Residents agree reform is sorely needed

By Travis M. Andrews
Contributing Writer

Bear was fond of the smell wafting up every few feet as he took his evening strolls. He’d stop to take in the scent as each one would reach his olfactory glands. Problem was, Bear’s a dog. His owner, Carrie Knopf, felt a little differently. The stench was leaking from sewage pipes, and Knopf received a letter claiming the pipes would soon be fixed. That was four months ago, and Bear still enjoys his nightly treat. For many New Orleans residents, this is a familiar story. So familiar that Mayor Mitch Landrieu has offered a series of proposals that would reform the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans after he requested an analysis of the S&WB this past July. These, he claims, must be in place before any rate increase.

“Repairing our city’s infrastructure is essential and with it comes an opportunity to create thousands of jobs for New Orleanians,” said Landrieu. But in order to move forward on a rate increase, we must reform the Sewerage and Water Board. Today, I am proposing a series of major reforms that are targeted at increasing performance and accountability of the Sewerage and Water Board so that all citizens of New Orleans can have peace of mind that they are receiving the highest level of service from this important public utility.”

The Board claimed it could reduce a rate increase to an annual 10 percent increase for water and swear rates over an eight year period. Thus, a total of an 80 percent rate increase. The reform itself will reduce the number of members on the board and shorten their term limits. As it stands, the board has 13 members who each serve nine-year terms. The reform would shrink it to nine members serving six-year terms.

“The Sewerage and Water Board’s mission is to provide safe drinking water and protect homes from flooding,” Landrieu said. “As it currently stands, it is clear to me that it does not have what it needs in terms of infrastructure and funding to serve the city of New Orleans. Post-Katrina, the Sewerage and Water Board’s network of underground pipes is leaking at least 40 percent of its water and the East Bank of the city has faced multiple boil water advisories because of catastrophic outages at the power plant.”

Again, these numbers shouldn’t be surprising. Katie Hunter Lowrey, who lives at 1327 Feliciana St., saw the need for reform firsthand. On August 18, construction crews ripped two holes that stretched about two blocks in length. Notes were left on the doors of that street’s residents, promising to return everything to its previous condition, which Lowrey said “was not that great to begin with.” They filled the holes with sand, turning the street into a veritable beach. Though Lowrey never planned to own waterfront property, it seemed that had become the case. “For as long as I’ve lived on the street we’ve had issues with flooding when it rains because the roads won’t drain properly,” Lowrey said. “I had hoped this construction would alleviate some of the standing water that sits after rainstorms but it only got worse. The sand was mushy and wet and slippery for September-October and has now mostly washed away leaving torn up asphalt everywhere. My only transportation is a bicycle and riding up and down my own street has been made very difficult.” Of course, she wasn’t the only one affected by the construction. ”There are lots of little kids who live on my block who used to ride around but now that’s impossible,” she said. “Parking is more difficult for folks with cars and the road condition is really rough on all our vehicles.” So Lowrey went to her Councilwoman Palmer and S&WB member Joe Becker. The following, according to Lowrey, is her email exchange with Becker:

“JB: SWB has a record of Wallace Drennan Construction cutting a water service at 1321 Feliciana in August. I don’t think Drennan is working for the SWB but we will be able to confirm.

KHL: I don’t think cutting a water service at one house explains an entire city block made of sand.

JB: Ms Hunter Lowrey, you are correct. I apologize for the confusion. The questions to me were, who is working out there, what are they doing, and how much longer are they going to be out there. Council staff sent this inquiry to departments at the City of New Orleans. Because the sewerage and water board is so very active throughout the city, we were also included in that request in an effort to get answers. When I got the email, I researched on the SWB repair database to see what work we were doing in that block. All I could find was a repair of a service that was cut by the contractor working out there. A service repair would typically affect one address and would take a few hours to complete. Clearly, that does not describe the construction that is taking place at this location. And the cut service was called in to the SWB by a contractor working in the street. You are absolutely correct that the repairs you are experiencing are much more significant than a simple cut service. Since the database check, the Sewerage and Water Board has also dispatched a SWB inspector to this location. Our inspector is reporting to me that this street is being prepared for an asphalt paving for the entire block. That may be a job that is being performed by a contractor working for the City of new Orleans and not the SWB. I apologize if my previous answer caused any confusion or frustration. SWB will work with the city of New Orleans to see if we can identify a paving schedule for this location as well as put you in contact with the appropriate city department.”

This took place on September 20. Since then, she’s contacted everyone from Councilwoman Palmer to S&WB member Robert Jackson (who only responded to our attempts to contact him at 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 19 through a secretary who promised he would call the next day, which did not occur). No one responded to her. And now water is overflowing from the sand, even when it’s not raining.

The proposed reforms would allegedly increase transparency through a public “S&WB STAT” meeting, where, according to a press release, “senior leadership will meet in public with key department heads and program managers to review data to understand what works, what doesn’t, and what steps need to be taken to improve results. Implementing this performance management initiative will improve results for citizens. These meetings will be similar in structure to the city’s successful PerformanceStat programs monitoring blight reduction (BlightSTAT), revenue collection (BottomLineSTAT), quality of life issues (QualityOfLifeSTAT) and City contracting (ReqtoCheck).”

In addition, the mayor’s office claims the reforms will support 26,959 construction jobs and create 74 permanent positions in 2013. Contacted several times during the course of the week, Mayor Landrieu elected not to comment on the proposal.

This article was originally published in the November 26, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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