More than a fifth of all jobs within the embattled Sewerage & Water Board this year have gone unfilled — and 59 of those vacancies are for skilled jobs dealing with the Carrollton power plant and the drainage pumps it powers, city officials said Wednesday.
What’s more, the agency apparently has been running a bare-bones operation for years in those departments, according to reports from an independent consultant tasked with overseeing the S&WB’s operations.
As the extent of the problems with the drainage pumps at various stations was coming into fo…
Those reports, from the consulting firm Black & Veatch, show the S&WB had trouble finding skilled technicians after Hurricane Katrina and particularly after the City Council’s 2013 decision to reinstate a residency requirement for city workers. The council had waived the rule for several years after the 2005 storm.
Taken together, the information suggests the agency’s greatest problem, aside from the age of its infrastructure, is a severely depleted workforce that cannot manage basic repairs in a timely manner or efficiently operate pumps even with employees working overtime.
Most pump repairs are handled in-house, and at least 17 pumps were inoperable when a deluge hit Aug. 5 that flooded hundreds of homes and businesses. Still more working pumps were left idle because one operator was tasked with flipping the switch at two widely separated stations, according to maintenance logs released last week — two scenarios that suggest an overburdened staff.
But the information City Hall provided Wednesday, along with reports that have been published on the agency’s website for years, offered the most detailed look yet at the problem’s scope.
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Mayor Mitch Landrieu has begun to publicly acknowledge the agency’s manpower crisis, as its outlook has turned increasingly bleak. He has pledged to bring on temporary contractors to perform the basic job of manning the city’s pumps, and he brought in contractors to repair the pumps that were inoperable during the deluge. So far, one repair has been completed.
The 59 vacancies are in the key departments that handle water pumping and power, facilities maintenance, and sewerage and drainage operations, among other duties. All told, there are 325 unfilled slots across the agency.
The situation could get worse as skilled technicians continue to retire but are not replaced.
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The agency’s maintenance department — charged in part with repairing the city’s pumps and turbines — has filled only 58 of a total 96 budgeted positions this year, city spokeswoman Erin Burns said. That has led the city to contract out much of the repair work now going on, some of which would have been handled in-house if there were more workers.
Keeping the working pumps and power-generating turbines manned is another problem. Though Burns insisted that the turbines are manned all the time, she said only the “largest, primary pumping stations” are manned 24/7, with smaller stations staffed “as needed in response to a rain event” and automated stations manned only when necessary.
To provide even that level of staffing, employees must work overtime. Asked how common it is for an operator to have to travel from station to station during a rain event, Burns said supervisors are sometimes “needed to fulfill operator staffing needs at unmanned stations.”
“At times, one supervisor could have multiple stations to travel to,” she said.
S&WB officials, including Executive Director Cedric Grant, have long said that hiring at the agency is too slow, something they blame in part on the city's civil service system.
The Landrieu administration has tried, unsuccessfully, to institute changes that would let the S&WB hire outside of the civil service system altogether, potentially allowing it to offer some new employees higher wages and less generous retirement benefits that officials have argued would do more to lure engineers and others considering work in the private sector.
"You guys go meet with the Civil Service Commission and the people who run civil service. Make sure we get as close as we can to getting on the same page as to what the barriers are ... that need to be broken down," Landrieu told the S&WB leaders at a meeting Wednesday.
In terms of the infrastructure that pumps stormwater out of the city, there was some good news Wednesday. The first pump to be repaired after the storm was brought back online, increasing the 17th Street Canal pumping station's capacity to 65 percent.
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The city expects 10 more pumps to come online by the end of September.
At the power plant that fuels the pumping stations, two of the three broken turbines are expected to be brought back online by the first week of September. A repair date for the final turbine has not been announced.
Landrieu also announced the city would be spending $22 million on catch basin repairs and cleaning, while saying that residents need to help clean out the catch basins in their own neighborhoods.
The city has 65,000 catch basins, which funnel water into the drainage pipes that lead to the pump stations. About 15,000 of those are considered to be at least partially clogged; another 3,700 have major issues that need professional repairs.
Money for the catch basin repairs is expected to come from other projects that were expected to move forward over the next five years, Landrieu said.