In the wake of this month's flooding, city officials are confronting a problem that has largely flown under the radar for more than a decade.

The problem: The Sewerage & Water Board cannot recruit or retain enough of the skilled workers needed to maintain and fix parts of the drainage system that failed to prevent homes and businesses from flooding on Aug. 5.

The drainage division has been hobbled by a steady exodus of retiring workers, who have been replaced by people who lack comparable skills and experience, according to a dozen years' worth of reports from the consulting firm Black & Veatch that were reviewed this week.

The question of why about a fifth of the approved positions at the agency are vacant has prompted a new round of finger pointing. S&WB board members and Mayor Mitch Landrieu pointed this week to cumbersome civil service rules, drawing a testy response from the chairwoman of the city's Civil Service Commission.

Whatever the case, when the heavy rains fell earlier this month, three of the S&WB’s five major power-generating turbines and 17 pumps were down for repairs.

In perhaps the most dramatic display of the agency's staffing shortages, one crucial pumping station apparently sat idle for hours during the Aug. 5 storm because there was no one available to operate it.

The reasons for the staffing woes remain up for debate. While Landrieu cites constraints imposed by the Civil Service Commission — an entity he has long tried to distance from the S&WB’s operations — its chairwoman accused the S&WB of dragging its feet in vetting hundreds of applicants for key drainage positions, suggesting the agency was to blame for its own problems.

The consultants, citing interviews with S&WB employees, say the staffing issue is more the result of low pay and the city’s requirement that agency employees must live in Orleans Parish.

The finger pointing only sharpens the picture of an agency in chaos.

Root of the problem

S&WB’s drainage division is responsible for maintaining 24 pumping stations in the city and 11 smaller, automatic underpass stations. Most of those stations are supposed to be manned 24 hours a day, seven days week, with personnel turning on pumps as needed to respond to rainfall. 

The 118-year-old board is the only city agency that depends on its own power, with more than half of the system dependent on an archaic 25-cycle power standard used in few other places in the country. The four ancient turbines at the board’s Carrollton power plant must be continually refurbished; they and the one newer turbine also require operators.

To get the job done, the S&WB relies on a team of technicians, engineers and operators. The Black & Veatch reports mention four key departments involved in that work: engineering, facility maintenance, sewage and drainage pumping stations, and water pumping and power.

But more than a fifth of all jobs within the agency have gone unfilled this year, and 59 of them are in the sewage and drainage pumping stations, water pumping and power, and facility maintenance departments, officials said. Another 27 engineering positions were unfilled as of June 28, according to a separate report.

Compounding the problem is the 240 S&WB employees who are eligible for retirement, amounting to 20 percent of the agency’s workforce, Landrieu spokeswoman Erin Burns said this week.

While the retirement eligibility figures for individual departments weren’t available for the current year, consultants in 2016 said that more than a third of staffers in the engineering department had reached retirement age, while roughly a quarter of employees in the other three departments had done so.

Just like any other field, pay for employees varies, depending on experience. A senior principal engineer makes as much as $88,000 annually, a recent job listing shows, while an assistant pump station supervisor makes $39,000.

But the problem, Black & Veatch has long said, is that S&WB pay is relatively low when compared to the private sector, where employees with the same skill sets can earn six figures. And the requirement that employees must live within the city limits further complicates matters. That rule was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 but was reinstated in 2013.

“The inability to hire qualified staff is eroding the capabilities of the department,” the consultants wrote, as early as 2004, of the maintenance division. That sentiment was consistently repeated in subsequent years, all the way up to 2016.

Civil Service fires back

Landrieu has acknowledged that pay is an issue. But his spokeswoman also cited “civil service process restraints” when asked about the problem this week, and the mayor echoed that view at a Wednesday S&WB meeting.

Those statements prompted Civil Service Chairwoman Michelle Craig to fire off a sharply worded email to Landrieu and six other members of the S&WB, of which he serves as president.

It’s been the S&WB, not Civil Service, that has dragged its feet on hiring qualified candidates, Craig said. Of the more than 300 vacancies within S&WB’s purview, 90 percent of them are jobs where there are candidates waiting to be vetted.

“The only remaining step is for the S&WB’s staff to make the hire/promotion and send paperwork into the Civil Service Department,” Craig wrote.

She said Civil Service takes an average of only three days to review and approve an S&WB request to post and advertise a position and an average of 10 days after that to generate a list of applicants eligible to be hired or promoted.

As for pay, Craig said, the commission could have approved an increase for certain S&WB employees, just as it did for the Police Department and the Finance Department. “However, to date, S&WB staff has not requested any type of pay plan adjustment,” she said.

Craig also suggested that claims that S&WB pays its workers large amounts of overtime because it doesn’t have enough workers to fill key positions were questionable. She said pumping plant operators and people in some other jobs were earning thousands of dollars in overtime even though there were no vacancies within those departments.

Asked Friday about Craig’s claims, Burns said Landrieu personally set up a meeting between the S&WB and Civil Service leadership to find solutions for the manpower crisis.

Understaffed, backlogged

While the exact causes of the staffing shortages are being debated, the fact that the agency is in dire need of workers who can perform basic maintenance on its pumps and other machinery is undeniable, the reports show.

The S&WB’s facility maintenance division, for example, is tasked with the upkeep of its drainage pumping stations, sewage pumping stations, power generation equipment and water meter servicing, among other duties. Essentially, it is the first stop when equipment needs repair, with the exception of the sewage treatment plants that are managed by the French conglomerate Veolia.

Equally important is the agency’s engineering department, which oversees work on turbines and other equipment that goes out for bids from private contractors.

But scarce staff and dwindling institutional knowledge as more experienced employees retire have dogged both divisions, the consultants repeatedly said in their reports. For the turbine work, there are few people with the know-how to make sure contractors are charging the S&WB appropriately and performing the work correctly. And pump repairs and other work that is still mostly done in-house are logjammed.

“While the Facility Maintenance Division is well equipped, the lack of an adequate number of trained personnel has hampered the ability of the division to perform in-house repairs,” the consultants wrote in 2009.

And again, six years later, on the engineering side: “The department is very short-staffed both in engineering and maintenance,” the consultants said. “The department recently lost several key engineering personnel that provided technical support and contract management. More senior-level engineering staff, as well as engineering interns, is needed to train less experienced staff, provide technical support to the crews and manage contracts.”

Even new equipment intended to bolster the decrepit system has placed stress on the undersized staff. When the agency’s newest turbine, the 60-cycle generating Turbine No. 6, came online in 2012, maintenance crews soon began decrying it as a burdensome addition to their already lengthy to-do list, according to reports in 2015 and 2016.

The rehab of a large tank meant to purify water was knocked off schedule because of extra turbine-related workload. So were repairs for a pump at Drainage Pump Station No. 11, in Lower Coast Algiers, after the division was too shorthanded to send someone out to repair pump bearings. Damaged bearings can decrease pump efficiency.

That pumping station today is listed as having only half of its operational capacity, with Drainage Pump D taken offline in February for repair and Drainage Pump B listed as offline also, though it’s unclear for how long.

City Hall only recently put both jobs out for emergency procurement.

And the agency’s requirement for 24/7 operators at the pumping stations appears to be a moving target, as evidenced by maintenance logs that show one station in Lakeview went unmanned as waters rose and an employee eventually had to wade through them to flip the switch.

Data from City Hall show that no one was at pump stations No. 12 in Lakeview and No. 14 in New Orleans East during the day Aug. 5, though an operator did arrive after 3 p.m. at both places.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.