In the midst of new concerns about the reliability of the Sewerage & Water Board’s drainage system and longstanding complaints about broken streets and other infrastructure, City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell is proposing to direct $84 million a year toward maintenance of the system if she is elected mayor this fall.
Her plan, outlined Thursday and heavily based on recommendations from the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research, would require surmounting significant obstacles, including prying money loose from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and winning support for a new stormwater fee that would initially target nonprofits but could eventually be expanded more broadly.
To correct problems at the S&WB, Cantrell also proposes rolling the agency into city government, something that would have to be approved by voters and the Legislature.
Cantrell is the first candidate in the 18-person mayoral field to offer specific plans for dealing with the infrastructure woes that have long plagued the city and the new problems that were revealed after Aug. 5, when several neighborhoods flooded while some S&WB pumps were offline, the agency's ability to generate electricity to run them was reduced and staffing shortages appeared to leave some stations without operators.
“If you want to know what kicking the can down the road looks like, I think we’ve arrived,” Cantrell said.
Her plan also calls for implementing stormwater management recommendations outlined in the so-called “Living with Water” plan, which calls for policies favoring stormwater retention, permeable surfaces and other measures to reduce the need for pumping all rainwater out of the city. Those improvements would be both directly funded by the city and encouraged through development incentives.
The plan also calls for using inmates at the parish jail to help clean storm drains and conduct minor repairs and encouraging volunteer efforts to keep catch basins free of debris.
Under Cantrell’s plan, $30 million would be dedicated every year to street repairs and other minor infrastructure improvements — up from the $8 million now budgeted — and another $54 million a year to maintenance on the drainage system. The streets money would be separate from the $2.4 billion in FEMA money the city is preparing to use to fund full reconstructions of streets across the city.
The funding proposal leans heavily on two sources that have long been eyed by some city officials, but never with much success: the large tax collections that go to the Convention Center and the large number of properties in the city owned by nonprofits that are exempt from property taxes.
Cantrell’s campaign said she would seek to redirect about $17.7 million a year that now goes to the Convention Center from a 1 percent hotel tax and a quarter-cent tax on food and beverages.
Other funding sources, including lease payments from the planned World Trade Center redevelopment, could also be steered toward the infrastructure fund.
BGR has long said the city should seek more control of the Convention Center taxes, which were originally earmarked for an expansion that has not occurred. Those two taxes make up less than a third of the amount the center, which has $240 million in reserves, brings in through taxes.
But while there have been efforts to tap into that money, none have succeeded. State Rep. Stephanie Hilferty this year introduced bills that would have redirected the money to street repairs, but the bills never made it out of committee.
Getting approval for a stormwater fee, which would go to the S&WB's drainage operation, could be equally daunting. Getting nonprofits to pay more to the city has long been a priority of BGR and some officials, including Councilwoman Stacy Head, but with little result.
Cantrell said the details of that plan are still being worked out, and it's not clear whether the ultimate proposal would be a flat fee per property, a system of determining how much water runoff a property generates or some other way of calculating the amount owed.
The initial phase of the plan would target nonprofits such as Tulane University and Loyola University, which have successfully resisted previous efforts to get them to pay more for city services they use, such as drainage.
“The first step is to ask the nonprofits to put some skin in the game,” Cantrell said.
The stormwater fee could potentially be expanded to all property owners, once the city proved it was spending the money wisely, Cantrell said.
Another significant proposal would be folding the S&WB into city government to increase City Hall's oversight and accountability. The agency is now a semi-independent state entity, though its board is appointed by the mayor.
A lack of knowledge among board members — including Mayor Mitch Landrieu — about the state of the S&WB’s equipment has been criticized in the wake of the flooding last month.
A lack of coordination between the agency and the Department of Public Works, which oversees some parts of the drainage system, also has been a long-term problem, though it was supposed to have been solved by the appointment of Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant as executive director of the agency. Grant retired in the wake of the flooding.
“Accountability was pretty much non-existent,” Cantrell said. “That’s what I’m advocating for, accountability.”