In The News › Rebuild New Orleans’ sewer, water systems and create jobs: Mitch Landrieu and Raymond Manning

Rebuild New Orleans’ sewer, water systems and create jobs: Mitch Landrieu and Raymond Manning

By Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Raymond Manning
The Times-Picayune Op-Ed

The Sewerage & Water Board provides safe drinking water, protects homes from flooding, offers water to fight fires and treats wastewater. Unfortunately, S&WB does not have adequate funding to deliver these essential services to the people of New Orleans. We cannot afford to kick the can down the road any longer.

Put simply, the system is in dire shape, threatening our public health and safety. We are bleeding more than 40 percent of our treated water through cracks in underground pipes. The S&WB power plant has suffered multiple catastrophic failures since Hurricane Katrina, and we know all too well what a boil-water advisory means for our businesses and families. Since 1998, the sewerage system has been under federal consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency.

As weak as its infrastructure is, S&WB’s financial condition is worse. Bond ratings are at junk or nearly junk status. In fact, it failed to meet its bond covenants for water and sewer system bonds.

Consequently, in December 2009, the S&WB authorized a comprehensive financial plan and rate study. Expert consultants suggested a 15 percent annual rate increase for water and 14 percent annual rate increase for sewer, based on the funding needs for the water and sewer systems alone.

Since taking office, we worked to secure federal resources to keep rates as low as possible. We secured more than $200 million in new funding from FEMA for repairs to thousands of water and sewer lines, power-plant equipment, pumps and pump stations. We have secured nearly $150 million in FEMA Hazard Mitigation funds to help repair the aging S&WB power plant. We are working with our congressional delegation and the EPA to reduce our burden for necessary costs related to the consent decree.

Through all of our efforts, we reduced the rate increase to 10 percent annually for both water and sewer rates and stretched it out through 2020. For elderly residents and those with low and fixed incomes, S&WB will significantly ramp up its Water Help assistance.

The rate increase will generate at least $583 million, which will help fund a large portion of the S&WB’s $3.3 billion infrastructure improvement program. This is one of the largest infrastructure projects that the city of New Orleans has ever seen, and it is projected to produce more than 25,000 construction and nearly 200 permanent jobs.

Delgado Community College will offer a training program in partnership with the S&WB to ensure we have a pipeline of locals that can compete for these jobs. In short, the people of New Orleans will rebuild New Orleans.

My administration is also proposing governance reforms at the S&WB. We propose reducing the size of the board, shortening term lengths and imposing term limits. A selection committee of local university presidents will recommend a slate of residents for appointment that have professional expertise. To improve accountability, we will memorialize good government contracting processes, as well as financial disclosure and ethics code requirements.

The rate increase will also fund important customer service improvements. These improvements include electronic meters, an additional customer-service center, online account management allowing online bill payment, and an online work-order tracking system with appointment scheduling capabilities. S&WB and city public works engineers are literally sitting in a room together for the first time. This coordination will make roadwork more efficient and consistent.

Since this process began more than two years ago, the S&WB executive board and various committees have held more than 30 public meetings. In addition, six public community meetings were held this year to discuss the proposal.

Politics and delays created this crisis in the first place. As a Bureau of Governmental Research report put it: “Over the past few decades, the City Council has on multiple occasions delayed or killed rate increases, despite the S&WB’s pressing needs.”

The longer we put it off, the more expensive it will be and the greater at risk the city of New Orleans will be.

The time to act is now.

Mitch Landrieu is mayor of New Orleans and Raymond Manning is president pro tempore of the Sewerage & Water Board.

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