In The News › Stacy Head, BGR concerned about speedy City Council vote on higher water bills

Stacy Head, BGR concerned about speedy City Council vote on higher water bills

By Richard Rainey
The Times-Picayune

Plans for the City Council to vote this Thursday on doubling the city’s water and sewer rates over the next eight years have at least one council member and a government watchdog group concerned that not enough has been done to educate New Orleans residents on the matter. Councilwoman Stacy Head criticized the scheduling of a vote on the $583 million rate hike just three weeks after the Sewerage & Water Board passed its latest version to the council.

“This vote is premature, and I see no reason to rush it to conclusion in the next four days,” she wrote in a statement.

The Bureau of Governmental Research, which drafted its own recommendations for changes to the S&WB, echoed Head.

“The public doesn’t know that the council is considering doubling their rates on Thursday,” BGR Executive Director Janet Howard said. “My recommendation would be that they not act on this Thursday, but have a proper and adequate notice of a hearing” for the public.

Through many months and two major rewrites, engineers, lawyers and water board and city officials have bandied about the rate hikes, which the likes of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and others have called essential to paying for a $3.3 billion reconstruction of the S&WB’s ailing infrastructure. The latest permutation has sewer and water rates increasing a little more than 10 percent every year for eight years, basically doubling average water bills by 2020.

As a regulatory body, the council has final say over any rate hikes. Despite requests from The Times-Picayune, the S&WB has not provided the precise formula behind the proposed eight annual jumps. A study of the version sent to the council on Nov. 14 states the average residential bill will increase from $52.50 a month to $86.36 in five years.

Head’s and Howard’s worry began Friday when Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson set a special meeting of the council’s Budget Committee for Wednesday. The notice didn’t advertise that the proposed rate hikes would be the meeting’s main subject, although they are listed on the meeting’s official public notice.

Head wrote that Clarkson had not given the public enough warning, considering the rate proposal had morphed at least twice before. Pointing to a similar water rate increase enacted in 2007 that waited several months between the S&WB’s vote and council action, Head has recommended the council call a Public Works Committee meeting “set far enough in advance to allow meaningful engagement by interested constituencies.”

She also wants Thursday’s vote on the final proposal delayed.

“I have requested a deferral on this ordinance to no avail. This is against typical council protocol as deferrals are commonplace — particularly with an issue of this magnitude — and the result will be to avoid meaningful public engagement,” Head wrote.

Clarkson couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Thursday could be the last chance the current council has to vote on the rate hike. Two new council members will be elected Saturday, throwing doubt on whether proponents of the rate increase will have the majority needed to pass it. The District B and District E races are special elections to fill vacant seats, a scenario that lets candidates take their place on the dais as soon as the final votes are verified by the state.

The two candidates heading for a runoff vote in District E, attorney James Gray and State Rep. Austin Badon, both said they were against a rate increase during a television debate on Sunday. Gray said he wouldn’t support any hike until the Sewage & Water Board is brought “under supervision of the City Council,” although he didn’t specify what he meant by “supervision.” Badon said flatly, “You have to find another way, you can’t continue to put this on the backs of the people of New Orleans.”

Juvenile justice advocate Dana Kaplan and Broadmoor community organizer LaToya Cantrell, candidates in the District B race, haven’t commented publicly on the rate proposal.

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