Clancy DuBos: S&WB in 'triage' mode_lowres

The Sewerage & Water Board has failed to collect more than $134 million in charges racked up by customers over the last three years, money that amounts to almost half the operating budget of the financially ailing agency.

City Council members have questioned the amount owed to the utility for months, and at a public works committee on Tuesday S&WB officials detailed the scope of the problem. But they said more research is needed to determine how much of the money is due to unpaid bills rather than errors or other issues.

The issue of uncollected cash is particularly fraught now that Mayor LaToya Cantrell is negotiating with state officials in hopes of securing a $75 million infusion for the utility. The administration has argued that money, along with $40 million a year the administration is seeking to redirect from tourism and hospitality agencies, is needed to put the S&WB on stable financial footing.

Council members said those arguments would be undermined -- and support from state officials would be lost -- if it seemed the S&WB was letting collectible debts slip through the cracks.

“We’re talking about $140 million being on the table and we’re asking for people to come save us?” Councilman Jason Williams asked.

S&WB Executive Director Ghassan Korban confirmed that the utility is owed the $134 million, which amounts to almost as much as the agency bills for sewer services citywide in an entire year. He told council members that the utility had made progress in improving its billing system, including hiring more meter readers, improving routes and taking steps to ensure there were no problems with the meters themselves.

But, he said, he did not have more answers on the money the S&WB is owed at the moment, and might not have those answers until this summer.

Councilwoman Helena Moreno said answers were needed far sooner.

“There could be $140 million on the table right now, and I think we need answers like next week as to whether that number is accurate,” Moreno said. "And then when we have an accurate number, do everything possible to collect."

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​