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Questions surround legality of S&WB vote on millage rate

FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

By Meg Gatto
Fox 8

New Orleans, La. – Questions are being raised about whether the Sewerage and Water Board broke the law when they voted to pass forward a millage rate that could net an additional $4 million for the agency. It’s a story FOX 8 first reported last week.

During a Sewerage and Water Board meeting September 19, the board voted on an executive committee report. There was no discussion on the report and no public comment.

In video of the meeting, board member Stacy Head appeared to be surprised that the report contained a 2013 drainage millage request, essentially a $4 million increase in revenue.

“In my board packet we had millage requests for City Council to set Sewerage and Water Board millage rates for 2013. When is that coming up?” Head can be heard asking on the video.

Head said she didn’t realize that, by simply voting on a committee report, she and other board members had just approved the millage request.

The board voted to pass forward onto next year a millage that had already been in place. But with Orleans Parish property values increasing, some residents may have to pay more in millage fees.

The reason the Sewerage and Water Board says it needs the millage is to pay for drainage projects. They say, even if proposed rate hikes went into effect, that money could only go towards water and sewer projects, not drainage.

Janet Howard heads the Bureau of Governmental Research. She says the board may have violated open meetings laws because there’s no mention on the meeting agenda that a vote would take place on rolling the millage forward.

“The agenda is to have enough specificity, according to the Attorney General, and this makes perfectly good sense, to let the public know what actions will be taken at the meeting,” Howard said.

In a letter to FOX 8 News, an attorney for the Sewerage and Water Board cites an article of the Louisiana Constitution that states any agency wishing to increase millage rates must adhere to a certain set of procedures. But, the letter says, those procedures wouldn’t apply since the board simply voted to roll forward the existing millage.

The letter goes on to say, “Although the potential may exist for increased revenues, this does not create a legal requirement for advertisement and the holding of a public hearing.”

Howard insists the public is entitled to know when a public entity is voting on something that will affect all residents.

“The residents should know about it. The agenda should make clear that’s going to happen and, more than that, you would expect to have some sort of discussion at the board level when it takes an important action affecting its finances,” Howard said.

The attorney for the Sewerage and Water Board also tells us the board did not violate public meetings laws because agendas of the meeting were made available to the public and residents are allowed to attend board meetings.

Howard wonders how anyone would know to show up to a meeting if the agenda doesn’t specifically say what will be discussed.

The issue will go before the New Orleans City Council for a final vote in the next few months.

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