Quatrevaux on S&WB: Worst he's ever seen

New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux ratcheted up his criticism of the Sewerage & Water Board on Friday, calling it "the worst government entity I have encountered in 40 years as a government manager."

Quatrevaux previously had issued numerous reports critical of the board's business practices and has called for it to be folded into city government rather than remaining a quasi-independent agency.

The latest broadside came as he released his office's 2018 strategic plan, laying out its priorities and plans for the coming year, during which the Ethics Review Board may in fact decide to replace Quatrevaux.

The plan identified Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and the New Orleans Police Department as the most improved city entities during Quatrevaux's tenure, though it said the latter "will need to continue to improve in numerous operational areas before it becomes the high-functioning police department that New Orleans needs."

Quatrevaux said "three major (corruption) investigations ... have been underway for several years as they progress in the prosecutorial arena. The results may be announced this year or next, but they will reveal schemes that are regional or national in scope in addition to corruption of the 'only in New Orleans variety.' ”

In discussing progress at the airport, Quatrevaux wrote that a few months after Iftikhar Ahmad was hired in 2010 to run the airport, "he explained to me that operating costs were 28 percent of revenue at Armstrong compared to the industry average of 18 percent. By reducing costs to the national average, he said, he could build a new terminal with no increase in fees or charges to airlines." 

As a result, and with the Office of Inspector General closely auditing all contracts, new contracts "saved the airport $25 million annually."

"The mayor played his part in the turnaround as well," Quatrevaux wrote, "replacing several members of the Aviation Board, some of whom had attempted to intimidate the aviation director into steering contracts" to favored firms.

The increased efficiencies led to a reduction in the cost per passenger from $10.20 in 2010 to $6.74 in 2016, he said.

Ahmad left New Orleans last fall to run the Rhode Island airport system.

Quatrevaux also credited Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration with "greatly improving the city's administrative processes, financial management and transparency of procurement of professional services." He said he "does not believe there is a serious risk of fraud (in awarding such contracts) as long as the city continues to maintain openness in the process." 

Bagneris snares prized endorsement

Mayoral candidate Michael Bagneris landed the prized endorsement of the Alliance for Good Government last week.

The organization’s New Orleans chapter held forums for mayoral and City Council at-large candidates Thursday and issued its coveted endorsements shortly afterward.

Bagneris, who is considered one of the three front-runners in the race, was endorsed over LaToya Cantrell, Desiree Charbonnet and other candidates.

The group endorsed state Rep. Helena Moreno and incumbent Councilman Jason Williams for the two at-large council seats.

The alliance's seal of approval is a big win for Bagneris, who has lagged behind Cantrell and particularly Charbonnet in fundraising and in polls.

In addition, the former Civil District Court judge has picked up support from a contingent of the city’s business community, including prominent businessman Frank Stewart, who has given him money and organized fundraisers on his behalf. Those cash influxes will show up on Bagneris’ next campaign finance report, due later this month.

Addressing the alliance Thursday, Bagneris touted his service as executive counsel to former Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial and on the bench. “I know government,” he said. “And I will use that knowledge to serve you.”

Tammany to cancel holiday celebration

St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister’s administration is continuing to chip away at parish spending following the failure of two sales tax renewals.

The latest move is turning out the lights on a popular holiday celebration.

Holiday of Lights, held at the Tammany Trace Trailhead on Koop Drive, features lights, kiddie rides and entertainment by school groups over two weekends in December. But it’s been canceled for this year, which would have been its 18th.

The administration, which announced the decision Friday, said the cancelation is part of cost-saving efforts to create a balanced operating budget for 2018.

The parish is dealing with an anticipated $18 million revenue shortfall following the April defeat of two one-fifth-cent sales taxes, one for the parish jail and the other for the courthouse. The parish is mandated by state law to pay for both.

The administration also has imposed a hiring freeze, consolidated offices and reduced manpower and operating hours at some facilities. For instance, hours at the St. Tammany Fishing Pier and Camp Salmen, popular parish-owned recreation facilities, are being reduced.

The two taxes will expire in March.

Williams: City needs to pay legal judgments

Unless they are issued by federal judges, New Orleans' government cannot be forced to pay off legal judgments against it, and the stack of unpaid judgments usually piles up year after year until the city finally finds a way to pay some of them off, though generally at a reduced rate of perhaps 50 or 75 cents on the dollar.  

At Thursday's City Council Budget Committee meeting, Councilman Jason Williams proposed an ordinance to annually dedicate money for paying off such legal obligations.

The city's current backlog of unpaid judgments and settlements, such as for traffic accidents in which it was found to be at least partially at fault, totals more than $40 million, with some dating as far back as 1996. 

The administration secured a bond to pay judgments of $6.5 million in 2017 and $5 million in 2018, but hundreds of bills will continue to languish on the list, Williams said.

"The city has long ignored paying judgments due to a loophole created in the state constitution," Councilman Jared Brossett said. "As we prioritize critical services throughout city government, we must also create a sustainable pathway to pay the judgments we owe."

Williams' proposed fund would set aside a minimum of $2 million each year, funded by revenue collected from judgments issued in favor of the city, supplemented with other revenue as necessary.

"We have to fulfill our obligations," Williams said. "It is clear that we need to give people reasonable assurance that they will, in fact, be paid. ... Now it is in our power to actually address this instead of continuing to kick the can down the road. There will always be judgments, and continuing to fail to set aside funds every year is irresponsible and bad policy."

Compiled by Bruce Eggler, Jessica Williams and Sara Pagones