Ghassan Korban still hasn’t had time to decorate his office at the Sewerage & Water Board’s headquarters on St. Joseph Street, but he’s already thinking about what the utility will look like decades from now.
Three weeks into his job, the new S&WB executive director is laying the groundwork for a bold plan that would go beyond the short-term fixes and emergency repairs that have dominated the agency since well before last summer’s floods in New Orleans.
His eye is on a multiple-decade master plan that would see brand-new systems for drainage, water and sewerage — a process that would mean at least tens of millions of dollars a year in new money from residents.
“We’re at the point where replacement is the only option,” he said.
At the same time, he’s calling for a short-term focus on making the S&WB more accommodating to customers still plagued by billing problems, finding ways to stave off its current financial woes and, perhaps most important, restoring credibility to an agency that has been wracked by a series of crises for more than a year.
Korban, appointed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the S&WB board over the summer, acknowledged the myriad, and intertwined, problems facing the agency in a wide-ranging interview with The New Orleans Advocate on Tuesday, one of the first he's given since he started work Sept. 4.
While its drainage system has been stabilized since last summer’s flooding, ongoing problems with its billing system continue to sap public faith in the beleaguered public utility, and it is bleeding cash.
Those problems must be dealt with immediately and with a hands-on approach, though they will take time to resolve, Korban said.
“To say we’re in a tough position, that’s an understatement,” he said. “If you are steady and responsible and making tough decisions, inevitably, we’re going to see some good outcomes. ... It's going to be slow but steady, and I think good things will happen.”
Korban spent more than 30 years working for Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works and served as its commissioner for seven years before taking the job at the S&WB.
He was already looking around for new opportunities when he learned the New Orleans utility was hiring — an opportunity he said he was drawn to because it presented a challenge and a contrast to the “stable and steady” agency he had led in Wisconsin.
“The closer I got to the finish line, the more excited I became. Because even though the task seemed monumental and colossal, it became more and more challenging and exciting for me,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been training for 30-plus years for this challenge.”
The overhaul, Korban said, is crucial to preparing the local agency for its next century.
“We have pieces of equipment that were installed in the 1920s and they’re still functioning,” Korban said. “It’s an enormous accomplishment that we’ve been able to manage the system for so long, but at some point you’ve got to say, ‘Does this make sense?’ I don’t think it does. We’re setting ourselves up to fail if we truly don’t acknowledge that fact.”
The exact cost of such a massive overhaul, the timeframe in which it would be carried out and where the money would come from are still being determined, Korban said.
At least some money likely would come from the more than $2 billion the city received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for drainage and street work after Hurricane Katrina, though much of the rest likely would have to come from rate increases, fees or new taxes.
In past years, officials have said it would cost tens of millions of dollars more a year just to keep pace with the maintenance needs of the current drainage system. A plan to totally replace its turbines, pumps, pipes and equipment would cost significantly more.
“That’s the only vision we can afford having,” Korban said. “Yes, it will be very expensive. But the question that everyone has to ask is: Can the equipment we have today serve us reliably five years from now or 10 years from now?
“If it’s a resounding yes, then there’s no need to replace. But I don’t think you can get a resounding yes on a collective scale. Some people may believe it, but the public (doesn’t),” he said.
“I know some of my team doesn’t believe it,” he added.
That work could include increasing the system’s capacity for handling rainstorms, either through traditional means of pumping out the water as quickly as possible or through green infrastructure that retains and slowly releases water rather than letting it overwhelm the city’s drainage capacity.
Korban was a champion of such green projects in his previous job.
“We’re realizing a pond or a green space is equally as important for managing water as a pump or a pipe,” he said.
In some ways, the plan is in line with what officials have been saying for years, that a lack of funding for the S&WB — and its drainage system in particular — has left the utility woefully behind on maintenance and kept it from doing needed upgrades.
Former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s parting remarks to the board explicitly called for Cantrell’s administration to make replacing the drainage system its top priority.
"It is still a very old system that in my opinion has to be replaced," Landrieu said in April. "I don’t think you can fix it in the way it needs to be for the next 50 or 100 years."
The idea of a massive, multidecade replacement campaign comes as the utility is struggling financially. Its reserves have fallen below the minimum amount it must have in the bank by the end of the year in order to comply with the terms of bonds it has issued.
To cut spending, Korban has his staff looking through scheduled projects to see what can be delayed. Ironically, given his long-term plans, for the rest of the year the S&WB will be “doing the bare minimum” on infrastructure projects, he said.
Noncritical positions also will be left unfilled, though Korban said the cuts will not include layoffs.
At the same time, he said he’s moving toward finding fixes for the S&WB’s billing problems, which include overcharges for some customers, inflated estimated bills and incorrect credits that have prompted thousands to dispute their bills.
A third party, whom Korban did not name because the contract has not been finalized, will be brought in to examine the billing department from top to bottom, he said. The recommendations on how to fix the problems are expected by the beginning of next year.
In the meantime, Korban said, he’s examining the potential problems on his own and instituting new policies where he can, such as having meter readings double-checked to look for problems.
“I’m spending a lot of time studying the process, all the key components of it, and assessing what is going wrong and why,” he said. “I’m not there yet, but I’m very close to recognizing some of the issues that are challenging us and causing us to be inaccurate.”
And with 23,000 customers considered delinquent on their payments, Korban said the utility must reach out to customers and be flexible with payment options to get them up to date on their payments.
One approach would be to hold sessions in various neighborhoods where customer service representatives could help people sort through billing problems.
And the utility should be there to help customers who may not know what to do when faced with billing problems, he said.
“Maybe they just don’t know where to start, they don’t know what the issues are, they can’t articulate their position, and they just would rather ignore it than handle it,” Korban said. “Then it’s on us to come to them and make it easier and facilitate that process.”