The good news for LaToya Cantrell is in November 2017 she became the first female mayor of New Orleans. The bad news is her election victory also made her president of the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans.
It’s no secret that New Orleans’ infrastructure is crumbling, threatening the viability of the city. What is not so obvious is that we could b…
Former Mayor Mitch Landrieu did his successor no favors in leaving the S&WB in such a mess. The scandals and incompetence at the agency have been startling even for a government-run bureaucracy.
As board president, Landrieu oversaw the continued deterioration of a crucial system designed to keep a city below sea level from drowning. Pumps were inoperable, power sources failed, turbines failed, thousands of catch basin were clogged. Landrieu allowed the sewerage and draining system to remain in disrepair, a problem complicated when a couple of heavy afternoon rainstorms flooded parts of the city. The flooding damage and heartache associated with it was not all the fault of Mother Nature. It also involved Landrieu and his lack of leadership.
And there’s more. Under Landrieu’s watch, the city saw dozens of boil water advisories and water pressure issues. And there were the leaks. Leaking subsurface waterlines happened all over the city under Landrieu’s watch.
One thing is clear: Tens of millions of dollars in Sewerage & Water Board bills aren't being paid by customers.
In comes Cantrell. What’s a new mayor to do? She's asked the state for more cash — tens of millions of dollars to fix a drainage system that some predict could be broke before the year’s end.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Just as the mayor tried to broker a deal to get the money raised from hospitality and tourism agencies funneled to the S&WB, news broke of possibly $134 million in unpaid charges racked up by customers over the past two years.
New Orleans City Councilman Joe Giarrusso and his staff came up with the numbers based on agency reports. Giarrusso claims he verified the numbers with the S&WB days before presenting them.
S&WB Executive Director Ghassan Korban wouldn’t dispute Giarrusso’s numbers at a Public Works Committee hearing Tuesday. But Korban also claimed it could take months to figure out how much was owed by customers. Not helpful.
Cantrell was obviously frustrated. Why wouldn’t she be? She’s trying to clean up Landrieu’s mess, and this happens.
In her frustration, Cantrell lashed out at The Advocate for having the audacity to report the story.
“What do you want to do, screw the city?” Cantrell asked in a phone call hours after the newspaper posted an online story about the questions over unpaid bills. “Is that what you want?”
“Who’s doing the work trying to get the money we need? Me,” she said. “It’s for the city. And it’s just that serious. You can play games if you want, but this is not the one. It’s not it.”
Later, Cantrell didn’t dispute the $134 million in uncollected money, but she called reporting on the figures promoting a “false narrative.” More like an unflattering narrative.
Cantrell wants the state to give her $75 million now and $40 million more a year after that.
“We know we’re owed money. I’ve been talking about that ad nauseam,” Cantrell said. “Even if we had the $140 million in hand, man, the problem is not solved. We’re talking drainage, man. We’re talking no reserves, man. We’re talking no cash flow, man.”
Cantrell’s passion and urgency on the issue are clear. As they should be. As mayor, she wants to make sure the city doesn’t have any more flood victims as a result of government bureaucratic ineptness.
The problem is the S&WB can’t get its act together when it comes to billing, with widespread reports of overcharging. Korban says he didn’t know how much of the unpaid money could be collected quickly, or at all, and how much of it represented valid charges versus billing snafus. He said it might take months to sort out those issues.
Korban said the council’s figures of $135 million in uncollected revenue are off. He said the amount could be as low as $50 million.
While Cantrell tries to fix Landrieu’s mess, the former mayor is making the rounds on talk shows, bragging about tearing down monuments and selling his book. I doubt there’s a chapter on the S&WB.
Email Dan Fagan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DanFaganShow.