BGR report says New Orleans should restructure governance of Sewerage and Water Board
By Ken Daley
Source: FOX 8
May 17, 2023
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) – The Sewerage and Water Board is hamstrung by bureaucratic inefficiencies and competing interests, and will continue struggling unless its “flawed” governance structure is reconfigured, a nonprofit analyst group said in a report issued Wednesday (May 17).
The Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) was critical of the current oversight setup of the utility responsible for New Orleans’ drinking water, sewer and drainage systems, which it described as a “complicated web” that provides weak accountability and hampers long-term performance.
“The structure is inefficient, ineffective and ultimately to blame for many of the infrastructure problems New Orleanians experience,” BGR president and CEO Rebecca Mowbray said.
The S&WB was created more than 120 years ago by the Louisiana legislature, and operates separately from city government while managing its own annual budget of more than $450 million. But the report says the S&WB also depends on the New Orleans City Council for its funding sources and answers to an 11-member board of directors led by the mayor. One board seat also is reserved for a city council member.
Adding to the entanglement, the S&WB also must coordinate with the city’s Department of Public Works on street projects and management of the municipal drainage system.
“This hybrid governance structure creates several significant problems, with serious consequences for residents,” the report said.
The BGR said the New Orleans structure is unique among cities the group surveyed, and “has elevated politics in funding decisions.”
“This has resulted in historical underfunding, contributing to today’s deteriorated infrastructure and shifting costs to current and future ratepayers,” the report said.
Bureaucratic entanglements also hamper coordination between the S&WB and city government on infrastructure projects — as nearly every driver trying to navigate around New Orleans’ myriad unfinished street projects can attest — and “makes it difficult to hold officials accountable.”
And with the S&WB responsible for the drainage system’s larger pipes, canals and pumps — but the Department of Public Works responsible for smaller sub-surface pipes and catch basins — the “division of responsibility impedes the performance of the whole system,” the report said.
“This was a root cause of the 2017 flood events in New Orleans. It is also unique among 51 peer cities reviewed by BGR,” the report added. “Compared to 51 peer cities, New Orleans is the only city that divides responsibility for a single drainage system between a municipal department (Public Works) and a stand-alone utility (S&WB).”
The BGR recommended that city and state officials work toward one of two paths: Either improve the S&WB as a stand-alone utility, or replace it with a new municipal utility.
“The mayor should coordinate these efforts with the City Council and the S&WB, as well as seek public imput,” the report said.
Mowbray said that either proposed path “requires careful planning to maximize its benefits and mitigate its risks, but New Orleans must choose.”
“Inaction enables these problems to persist and worsen,” she said, “diminishing the quality of life of citizens and jeopardizing the sustainability of the city.”
Mayor LaToya Cantrell said at a press conference Wednesday that she had not yet read the report in detail, but supported some of the conclusions presented in its executive summary.
“The BGR’s report speaks for itself,” Cantrell said. “It basically said what the Sewerage and Water Board has been saying for years, that the governance structure is too complex. The Sewerage and Water Board is committed to improving our operations, especially as we continue to prepare for hurricane season and climate change. But also as we’re making more investment into our systems than we have in decades. This is something that will continue to be a priority of ours moving forward.
“I have not gone through the report in detail, as far as the recommendations side of it. But we as a body will absolutely go through those recommendations, and the public should as well, and decide the next steps to relieve us of this complex governing structure.”
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