Maybe it was all those State of the Union bingo cards that popped up on the Internet this week — you know, where people try to guess ahead of time whether President Donald Trump will mention the wall, or congratulate the (mostly Democratic) women who won seats in Congress last fall, or threaten the end of American prosperity if Congress investigates him — that made me think that New Orleans’ Sewerage & Water Board is due for similar treatment.
Or maybe it’s just the steady stream of head-turning headlines out of the beleaguered agency.
Like Trump once again pushing a reluctant Congress to build his border wall, one of the week’s news topics was so predictable that it would have earned a square on everyone’s bingo card. That boil water advisory issued for the 9th Ward on Monday, after water pressure dropped below required levels while employees were testing a valve? That was the 17th such advisory since 2012. At least this time it happened because workers were working, not sleeping, which was the case when east bank residents endured a similar systemic breakdown in November.
But like the president’s kind words about all those white-clad House members and his ominous warning toward the new majority to which they belong, other developments came out of nowhere.
Tuesday brought news that the board has spent the last century — that’s right, century — using drinking water to cool heavy equipment, thus putting the city’s supply at risk of contamination. That hasn’t happened, thankfully, but the process violates not only public health regulations but simple common sense. To anyone who’s followed the long-running crisis in Flint, Michigan, not to mention emergencies in some of Louisiana’s struggling smaller jurisdictions, it’s pretty disconcerting.
Then on Wednesday came a rare bit of good, albeit just as unexpected, news, a 2018-end financial report that included an extra $20 million in reimbursements from FEMA and $25 million that had been misallocated. Despite previous warnings that the sewerage department was so cash-poor that it might not be able to meet its basic obligations, the sewerage and water departments each have about six months worth of money on hand, twice what’s required. And the perpetually under-funded drainage department got enough of a boost to reimburse money borrowed from the sewer and water systems.
This welcome development is disconcerting in its own way, because officials have been floating the idea of higher rates and fees for a while now. At the same time, Mayor LaToya Cantrell has been waging a public campaign divert some tourism revenue toward the city’s massive infrastructure needs.
Even with the newfound money, those needs remain. So does a deep lack of confidence in the agency, following a freak 2017 flood that revealed alarming shortcomings in the city’s drainage capabilities and led to a purge of its top management by then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu, which in turn was followed by a widespread billing system snafu. Just last month, Cantrell’s executive director Ghassan Korban warned that the system needs as much as $100 million more annually.
The challenge in asking already-strapped residents to pay more is to convince them that the agency deserves its trust, that problems are being addressed, that the money can be followed and that it’s being spent wisely — and that it’s really needed in the first place. This week’s news, the good as well as the bad, didn’t exactly further the cause.
Here’s how City Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who chairs the council committee that oversees the water board, put it: “People know that there’s issues with the systems, and I think people are willing to look at ways to expand services. But they have to know how much money is being collected, they have to know how that money is being spent, and there have to be straightforward answers about where their revenues really stand.”
One thing that would help would be a few days without dramatic headlines. Although I’m not sure anyone would find that likely enough to put it on their bingo cards.