Clancy DuBos: S&WB in 'triage' mode_lowres

After months of mounting worries about the Sewerage & Water Board’s finances, it turns out the public utility ended 2018 with plenty of cash in the bank.

A last-minute infusion of more than $20 million in reimbursements from FEMA and the discovery of $25 million that had not previously been accounted for pulled the S&WB out of a downward spiral that had caused it to draw down most of its reserves throughout the fall, officials said Wednesday.

The surprisingly rosy year-end financial statements left the S&WB with more than enough cash to stave off a scenario that seemed likely just weeks ago: that its sewerage department would end the year with so little money that it would violate agreements it signed when it issued bonds in 2015.

Beyond shaking lenders’ confidence, that could have triggered a process that would allow an outside entity to come in to make changes to the utility’s finances.

That possibility loomed over the S&WB for much of last year as it saw once-flush accounts devastated by the tens of millions of dollars spent on emergency repairs after 2017 flooding and a slowdown in payments blamed on customers' loss of faith in a billing system that overcharged thousands of them.

Over the course of months, S&WB officials warned they were delaying payments to contractors to keep money in the bank and also were delaying projects and cutting other expenses.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration warned members of the City Council that not hitting the benchmarks required by bondholders could mean rate hikes that would be out of their control.

All along, though, Chief Financial Officer Yvette Downs and other officials expressed confidence they’d meet their year-end goals, possibly with the aid of repayments from the federal disaster agency, but they never provided specifics or suggested the haul would be so large.

So Wednesday’s news that, in fact, the year-end financial picture was fine was something of a surprise when the numbers were read off at a meeting of the S&WB’s Finance Committee.

“Our cash on hand for water was 179 (days) and sewer was 178 days,” Downs told the committee. “We are required to have 90 days of cash on hand for water and sewer, so that is a target we did meet.”

While that statement elicited little reaction from the members of the committee, the sudden turnaround led to a call from City Councilman Joe Giarrusso for more transparency from the S&WB.

Pointing to the dire predictions made earlier by utility officials, Giarrusso said the S&WB needs to do a better job of informing residents about its operations and finances — particularly since officials have said they will need to go to customers and property owners for more money to repair and upgrade their ancient equipment.

“People know that there’s issues with the systems, and I think people are willing to look at ways to expand services,” said Giarrusso, a frequent critic of the agency. “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.”

The S&WB’s surprisingly robust year-end numbers were due in large part to repayments from FEMA that totaled $21.9 million, spokesman Curtis Elmore said in an email late Wednesday. However, it would take several days of research to determine which projects those reimbursements were for, he said.

The three S&WB systems — water, sewerage and drainage — are treated as separate entities financially. All saw their finances decline precipitously over the past year.

Drainage, which bore the brunt of the more than $85 million in emergency expenses after the August 2017 flood, burned through its reserves entirely by September and has been forced to rely on loans from the other departments until new tax revenues come in. Unlike the water and sewerage operations, which levy fees on customers, drainage depends entirely on property tax revenue.

But the sewerage department was seen as being in a particularly precarious state because it ended November with less than 50 days of cash in the bank. The FEMA reimbursements provided to that department equaled about $7.5 million, enough to run that portion of the agency for another 38 days and to bring it just shy of its goal of a 90-day reserve.

The financial reports provided at Wednesday’s meeting, however, showed the sewerage department with more than 178 days of cash.

Asked about that discrepancy, Elmore said the S&WB's financial team was also able to find about $25 million in previous FEMA funding that had been misallocated. The new money provided to the drainage system also allowed it to pay back the money it had borrowed from the water and sewer systems, he said. 

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​