On the day the Sewerage & Water Board said it reinstituted its policy of shutting off delinquent accounts, officials still struggled Wednesday to explain details of its collection procedures or even to say how many people were in danger of having their water cut off.
A conference call with members of the media and representatives of City Council offices was intended to clear up confusion about a plan that could see up to 17,000 customers lose water service for having overdue bills.
But the call did little to address key questions of how soon shut-offs would occur and what will happen to those who don't or can’t afford to pay their bills, many of which still seem to be inflated by widespread problems with the utility’s billing system.
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Agency representatives also could not explain the criteria for a newly revealed policy allowing financially strapped customers more lenient terms on their payment plans.
Council members have decried the shut-off policy, calling on the S&WB to fix its billing system before it begins shutting off people's water.
“If they can’t understand their own procedures, how is the public supposed to understand it?” said Councilwoman Helena Moreno, who was briefed about the call by a staff member. “We keep getting contradictory information.”
Also Wednesday, pastors with the group Justice and Beyond held a prayer vigil outside the S&WB's headquarters urging the agency not to shut off water to poor residents.
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Glaring questions remained unanswered after the Wednesday call with two S&WB spokespeople, including the crucial issue of when crews will begin actually cutting off service to customers the utility considers in arrears.
Utility officials were also unable to say how many accounts are still considered delinquent and how much of the $21.8 million the utility has said it is owed was paid up in recent days as many residents panicked over the possibility of losing service.
Under the S&WB’s policy, accounts that have owed at least $50 for at least 60 days are considered delinquent. That triggers a letter warning the customer that they have 10 days to pay up or have their water turned off.
S&WB spokeswoman D’Seante Parks said Wednesday the first batch of those letters went out last week, but she was not able to say exactly when. And neither she nor Communications Director Rich Rainey could say how many letters were sent, when more letters will be sent out or when the actual shut-offs will begin.
Whenever that is, it’s likely to be a long process. Rainey said 13 employees are assigned to turn water on or off and to investigate disputed bills. Parks said those crews would be able to cut off water to a maximum of 50 customers per day. At that rate, it would take nearly a year for all the supposedly delinquent accounts to be turned off.
The customers that owe the most will be targeted first, Rainey said.
Rainey said the S&WB will try to get the water turned back on the same day it is cut off if the overdue charges are resolved by 2:30 p.m.
The S&WB suspended water shut-offs in the fall as complaints about wildly inflated bills mounted. Nearly 30,000 customers ultimately ended up disputing their bills.
As a result, officials have pinned the blame for the agency's declining revenues on the lack of any mechanism to force customers to pay, pointing to 23,000 accounts they said had overdue bills in July.
The City Council has opposed resuming water cut-offs, but it has no direct ability to control the S&WB, which is overseen by a board headed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
Council staff members pressed the S&WB on outstanding concerns during Wednesday’s call, including complaints from residents that trying to dispute their bills to stave off a loss of water is an arduous process. The roughly 4,500 bills being formally investigated are not subject to having their service turned off.
Sergio Lopez walked out of Sewerage & Water Board headquarters on St. Joseph Street in New Orleans on Tuesday holding a receipt for the $8…
“We’ve got screenshots of people who have been on hold for two hours,” said Sherae Hunter, one of Moreno’s staff members.
Rainey directed Hunter to a form on the S&WB’s website. But Hunter said that not all residents have internet access and noted that the online form provides no confirmation that someone has been taken off the delinquent list.
When the agency determines that a disputed account is in fact delinquent, the customer will receive a letter letting them know they have 14 days to pay, enter a payment plan or appeal the decision to an administrative hearing. If they don’t act within that period, they’ll get a letter notifying them they could be shut off in 10 days.
The utility has maintained that those with overdue charges have three options: dispute the bill; pay it in full; or enroll in a six- to nine-month payment plan that requires a 25 percent down payment — an amount that could be a painful hit for many Orleanians' budgets.
But Parks said Wednesday that some customers facing financial distress could negotiate less costly payment plans. Such a plan could be triggered if a customer is on food stamps or meets other criteria, Parks said, though she did not offer other details.
“If you call us and say you cannot pay, we will work with you,” she said.
Emails seeking more information about who qualifies for that option or what it entails went unanswered Wednesday.
Key for several council members is the S&WB’s pursuit of customers with overdue bills when the agency itself estimates it has a backlog of 9,000 accounts that have never received a single bill. If the utility is looking for cash, council members say, it’s those customers — many of whom are trying to figure out how to pay — it should turn to.
“The fact that the S&WB is still struggling to get bills to people who want to pay makes me concerned about how many innocent parties might be adversely impacted by this decision to resume water shut-offs,” Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said in a statement. “I firmly believe that they need to show the public that their billing system issues are resolved before they start taking this type of action.”