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Flush problem leadership from S&WB

CityBusiness
Editorial

There’s no question that personnel with the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans performed heroically during Hurricane Katrina. Just the routine accomplishment of keeping its aging infrastructure functioning is a testament to the ability of the professionals who work at the agency.

So to argue that a dramatic overhaul is needed for the governance of the S&WB is not an indictment of the people who put forth a valiant effort to provide the city with basic services. It is, as the Bureau of Governmental Research points out in a report released this week, simply a call to realign the leadership and scope of their responsibilities if ratepayers are going to bear the cost of a system upgrade.

The S&WB is scheduled to consider a rate increase Thursday that is a watered-down version of its original proposal. Ultimately, the New Orleans City Council and Board of Liquidation must approve any increase. As the plan stands now, the average monthly household water and sewerage bill would climb from $52.50 to $86.46 by 2016.

BGR supports an increase, to the extent that covers the cost of federal mandates, but is highly critical of the S&WB’s current governing structure. Its 13-member board includes three City Council members and the mayor, who serves as its president. In the past, council members have supported rate increases only to vote them down when the matter came before the City Council.

This exercise in political futility is at the heart of the critical review from BGR, which suggests removing the mayor and council members from the board and reducing its size to nine seats.

It’s a very prudent suggestion for a panel that has proven to be woefully inadequate when it comes to managing the system’s finances and planning for its long-term operation and maintenance.

Furthermore, the recent malfunction involving the water system that required a daylong boil water order underlines the need to evaluate the system’s management. Again, the foot soldiers are not to blame, but instead those who have failed to provide them with adequate leadership.

Such instances are simply unacceptable from a major U.S. city in 2012. Perhaps fee increases would have been put in place long ago had ratepayers felt more confidence in those resources being effectively marshaled.

As BGR notes in its report, “Tying rate increases to substantive reforms would give citizens confidence that this time will be different.”

Anything short of de-politicizing the S&WB is setting the stage for history repeating itself.

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