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Let’s not endanger the Sewerage and Water Board to score political points

When I was elected Mayor in late 2017, the Sewerage and Water Board was at its most troubled point in its more than 120-year history and was on fire, in some ways literally.

I took office nearly four years ago, on May 7, 2018, and before that month was over the city had widespread flooding once again. By my fourth month in office, the agency had gone through four Executive Directors in as many months. Thankfully, since September 2018, we’ve had the same leader of that once-troubled agency, Mr. Ghassan Korban.

My first term in office has been defined by the unpredictable. Yet, despite this unpredictability we have carried on to bring stability to the SWB. We have available power to our pumps. We cleaned our canals, in many cases for the first time since before Hurricane Katrina. Billing disputes between the SWB and customers have been reduced from more than 10,000 to around 2,000 in the past three years.

The SWB is vastly improved compared to the distressful summer of 2017, despite the unprecedented impacts COVID-19 has wrought upon our workforce, our economy, and the availability of equipment and materials.

We devoted more than $40 million—and aggressively are pursuing even more—to bringing the power supply at the SWB to the most technically advanced and reliable level possible. And despite the historic rainfall this city experienced last year, we suffered little to no substantial flooding.

The agency’s billing system has vastly improved because the SWB is now reading almost 90% of meters on a weekly basis thanks to increased staff and training. The agency’s first automated meters will be installed this year and by 2024, all New Orleanians will benefit from smart meters that determine their bills accurately and efficiently.

And thanks to NOLA Ready and improved coordination between the emergency management teams of the City and SWB, our residents will never be blindsided by flooding in the way they were in the summer of 2017.

These improvements have all been initiated, in part, because we have a committed group of residents serving on the board of directors of the SWB, alongside a sitting member of the New Orleans City Council.

The current legislation being considered in Baton Rouge, House Bill 652, would in fact hurt ratepayers by creating more bureaucracy and a potentially worse financial situation for the utility. This bill would give officials outside of the SWB the power to directly modify bills, a situation ripe for corruption and confusion, as public officials would be able to raise or lower residents’ bills.

Is that what our citizens want? Political actors in this city determining who pays how much on their water bills?

As a former member of the New Orleans City Council, I can plainly tell you that I never would have wanted even the perception of such a responsibility. Billing issues need to be resolved in a technical, fair, and impartial manner—not by councilmembers asking for votes.

The bill says it would create oversight for the board, but requiring the City Council to promulgate rules and regulations, policies and procedures is not oversight. It’s regulation.

The SWB has made huge strides in recent years. Its operations have greatly improved, as has its billing system, and the agency regularly, and publicly, shows both its progress and vulnerabilities.

I urge our state legislative delegation and our citizens to continue to allow the SWB to improve and reject HR 652.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell

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