The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board will resume collection efforts on overdue bills this month and will reinstate a policy of shutting off water to delinquent customers in August, the utility announced Thursday.
The agency suspended its policies on delinquent customers — including the option of cutting off their water — last year after problems with a new billing system brought widespread complaints about incorrect bills.
But starting this month, the utility will again begin going after customers with past-due balances, according to a statement released Thursday. It was not clear exactly when that policy will go into effect.
“We are resuming our regular collections process in July, but water shutoffs will not start again until Aug. 1. We urge customers to use this time to resolve any outstanding balances,” spokeswoman D’Seante Parks said. “Water shutoffs are a last resort, and the agency hopes to work with customers to create a plan for payment, should they need one.”
Among the many headaches facing officials at New Orleans' water utility is an eye-popping number of customers who are listed as late on their …
Officials with the utility did not immediately respond to questions about how the collections process will work or what will trigger an order to shut off water to a home.
Those who can’t afford to pay their entire balance may be eligible for a payment plan. That plan would require an up-front payment of at least a quarter of the money owed, with the rest to be paid in installments to be added to a customer's bills over the subsequent nine months, according to the news release.
Cashuana Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, said she was concerned that the utility is considering shutting off water to customers’ homes.
"The residents who are most at risk for a shutoff are likely to be the ones with the fewest resources to navigate what has historically been a confusing process," Hill said in an email.
S&WB customers have struggled with inflated charges, double billing and other problems since the utility introduced new billing software in late 2016.
The utility last week blamed those problems on a lack of training for workers, rather than the software itself, and said it hopes to conduct more training and hire more staff to resolve the problems.
The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board is putting the blame for its massive billing problems on its employees and a lack of adequate train…
As complaints continued to pour in, the S&WB announced in November it would not shut off service to customers who were disputing their bills. In practice, it suspended shutoffs altogether, whether or not a customer’s bill was under investigation.
Utility officials have blamed the moratorium on shutoffs for a mounting number of overdue bills that total about $13.5 million, though it is unclear how much of that sum is actually owed and how much may be the result of incorrect bills.
The S&WB said recently that about 23,000 customers have overdue balances. City Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who heads up the council’s oversight of the utility, said he had been told by S&WB officials that number is now down to about 17,000.
More than 7,000 customers' bills were still in dispute as of Thursday, according to the S&WB's website.
Giarrusso said the public and the council should remain skeptical of the S&WB’s billing and should continue to push for a “bulletproof” system. But while some of the delinquent accounts appear to be the result of billing problems, he said, there also is a need to restart the collections process for those who simply choose not to pay their bill.
“If you really owe money, you need to pay that,” he said. “You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and say everyone who doesn’t pay gets a free pass.”
The S&WB also announced on Thursday that it is creating a “strike team” to go through the backlog of investigations that were started before June 22, adjusting the bills when errors are found.
The S&WB did not immediately answer questions about whether that team is made up of employees or outside contractors and did not provide information on how quickly it is expected to complete its work.