In The News › S&WB should end practice of giving free water to public agencies, Stacy Head suggests

S&WB should end practice of giving free water to public agencies, Stacy Head suggests

By Richard Rainey, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
March 05, 2013

As the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board puts together a plan to spend the almost $600 million it will collect from sewer and water rate increases over the next eight years, City Council President Stacy Head wants the agency to finally start charging for the water it gives away to several public agencies.

Dozens of agencies get free water, including public schools, libraries, the courts, and some parks and museums. In all, the agency gives away between $4.9 million to $7.5 million in water each year, Deputy Executive Director Bob Miller told the City Council’s Public Works Committee on Tuesday.

While the free water allows agencies to invest more in the services they provide the public, the giveaway fails to encourage conservation and it lets the S&WB mask the true cost of delivering its product, said Janet Howard, executive director of the watchdog group Bureau of Governmental Research.

“It is so sloppy to not know what it costs to operate your entity,” Head said.

Head, who also sits on the water board, has beaten the drum against the water giveaways since officials began debating the rate hikes in earnest more than a year ago. A 2011 study by the consulting firm Raftelis, which became a backbone of support for the rate increases, recommended that the S&WB cut back on the freebies.

But the Legislature would have to approve the change. State law requires the agency give special treatment to certain public entities, S&WB Executive Director Marcia St. Martin said.

“We have to get a handle on this pretty quickly here,” Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said. “Please help us find a legislator to take this on.”

As an example, Head pointed out that Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s operations receive 93 million gallons in free water a year. All while he is pushing to have City Hall pay for federally mandated reforms at the Orleans Parish Prison.

“Did the Sewerage and Water Board charge the sheriff?” she asked. “Nope, not a dime.”

Head was also miffed that Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration wants the water board to pay the city’s Public Works Department between $17 and $21 million for repairs to the municipal drainage system, but doesn’t compensate the agency for the free drinking water it receives.

Head conceded that forcing public agencies to pay for water will almost certainly increase what those agencies charge to operate, a burden that would largely be shifted to other pots of taxpayer dollars. Head argued that municipal agencies could defray the extra cost by collecting more money from state and federal coffers or by increasing the fees they charge. As an example, she said, city courts could collect more money from the state and the city and could raise the fees it charges attorneys.

Although Head typically opposes raising tax rates, she did suggest that some agencies could consider raising their millages to cover the cost of water.

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