No New Orleans home or business has been cut off from city water service for failure to pay trash collection fees, despite the passage a year and a half ago of a city ordinance that granted such power to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.
Further, the administration, which pushed repeatedly for the enforcement power, hasn’t requested that the Sewerage & Water Board take any such action, Harold Marchand, deputy special counsel for the board, said in responding to a public-records request from The Lens.
The utility, which is legally independent from the city, collects the trash fee on the city’s behalf. It’s not uncommon for customers to pay the water portion of the bill but not the sanitation service fee. In the past, the board was prohibited by law from cutting off water to anyone who paid that part of their bill.
Uncollected sanitation fees cost the city $8.5 million in 2011, according to a 2013 audit by the New Orleans Inspector General’s Office.
Officials said the ordinance would increase collections by more than $1 million per year. But Marchand’s letter, dated March 17, said the Sewerage & Water Board and the city are still “refin(ing) and finaliz(ing) their processes” for turnoff.
In an email Friday to The New Orleans Advocate, Landrieu’s press secretary, Brad Howard, said, “While the overall goal of this ordinance is to get every account fully paid, the city believes water shutoffs should be a last resort and reserved for those customers who blatantly refuse to pay their sanitation fees.”
While the administration views the 2013 ordinance “as an important tool to fairly hold customers accountable to paying their sanitation bills ... it is more important to get this done right than done quickly,” Howard wrote.
“We are in the process of carefully drafting procedures for this new policy, which we hope to launch this year. In the meantime, we will continue to aggressively pursue sanitation collections to ensure compliance, focusing especially on the most egregious violators,” Howard added. “Also, the Sewerage & Water Board is developing a new, modern customer billing system to launch next year, and we are working with them to incorporate this new function that would offer the city a reliable and systematic means of enforcing this policy.”
The Sewerage & Water Board has about 5,000 commercial accounts and 130,000 residential accounts in the city.
The past sanitation-fee scofflaws even included Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, a city councilwoman at the time, and her husband, Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell.
Landrieu proposed a water shutoff ordinance in 2012 as part of the 2013 budget. It didn’t even make it before the City Council for a vote.
The next year, facing huge unbudgeted costs for the 2014 budget and beyond, Landrieu again proposed the water shutoffs.
City officials predicted the measure would increase fee collections by nearly $1.3 million in 2014.
“That would be dependent on an ordinance ... that would ensure there are consequences for failure to pay sanitation bills,” Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin told council members in October 2013.
While the Sewerage & Water Board already could terminate service for water bill delinquency, the ordinance had the potential to greatly expand the number of water shutoffs. The inspector general’s report found that more than a third of the accounts that office audited had past-due sanitation fees.
The city, which has a poverty rate far above the national average, already had doubled monthly sanitation fees during Landrieu’s first term to $24 for residents and $48 for businesses.
In November 2013, the council passed the shutoff ordinance unanimously, despite public criticism.
“What does the Health Department say about that?” resident Donald Chopin asked at the meeting where the vote was taken. “That you can turn off people’s water? It’s a city filled with older people, with low-income people, with people who can’t pay their trash bill for whatever reason.”
Councilman James Gray said the ordinance was “not an attack on the poor but on the people who are able but unwilling to pull their share of the load.”
City officials noted that there are programs to reduce water and trash bills for low-income residents who are elderly or disabled.
In June, Landrieu signed an agreement with the Sewerage & Water Board allowing the agency to terminate service for trash bill delinquency “at the direction of the city.”
That same month, analysts for the United Nations called water shutoffs in Detroit an “affront to human rights.”
Late last year, the city lowered its expectations for 2014 sanitation collections by nearly $1.3 million — approximately the amount it had expected the fees to increase as a result of the ordinance — down from $35.74 million to $34.47 million.