What will it take to fix the Sewerage and Water Board? Editorial

By The Times-Picayune Editorial Board

Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

August 27. 2017

An emergency management team led by former Louisiana Recovery Authority director Paul Rainwater took over the Sewerage & Water Board last week. In addition to Mr. Rainwater, who helped get the state’s post-Katrina recovery on track, the team includes experts in finance, engineering, stormwater management and communications.

Strong and skilled leadership is badly needed at the Sewerage & Water Board. Former executive director Cedric Grant had overseen a dysfunctional agency that had allowed our drainage system to deteriorate to a dangerous degree.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the emergency team will be in place until the end of hurricane season Nov. 30. That should bring stability to the agency during a crucial period of the year, but what then?

The failings of the Sewerage & Water Board operation run deep. A full investigation needs to be done into the decisions and practices that contributed to massive flooding Aug. 5 in Lakeview, Mid-City and Gentilly. And our community needs to figure out whether or not the water board’s systemic flaws can be fixed under its current structure.

Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux sent a scathing critique of the S&WB to Mayor Landrieu and the City Council Tuesday and called for making the independent agency a city department.

He reminded them of a series of reports from his office over the past four years uncovering abuse of take-home cars, overtime and expense reimbursements. In December 2016, his office revealed the theft of 34,000 pounds of brass parts by S&WB employees over a three-year period.

“The OIG has shown the S&WB internal control system to be ineffective and revealed S&WB managers’ indifference to preventing and reducing waste,” he said in his letter Tuesday. “The recent drainage failures demonstrate that an organization cannot perform poorly in finance and administration yet perform well in operations.”

His assessment of the agency is spot on.

Making S&WB a city department, which he first suggested in 2012, is certainly worth examining. But it is a complex issue, as Mr. Quatrevaux acknowledged in his letter. Such a change would require legislation and ultimately voter approval of a revision to the City Charter.

There also are pros and cons to that type of management.

The Bureau of Governmental Research did an analysis of S&WB governance in 2011 and looked at consolidation. There are several significant benefits to putting the S&WB under direct city control, BGR found. First, consolidation would “force elected officials to accept responsibility for the system.”

The change also would make it easier to coordinate maintenance and repairs to the city’s infrastructure, BGR said. And it would unify the drainage system, which has been split between S&WB and the Department of Public Works.

“However, it would not solve a root cause of much of the street flooding in New Orleans: inadequate funding for maintenance,” the BGR report said.

There are other downsides. If S&WB were folded into City Hall, it would have to compete in a political environment for resources and could have money siphoned off for other city priorities. City departments also are subject to disruptions when a new mayoral administration takes over.

And Public Works, which is a city department, was part of the problem Aug. 5. Thousands of catch basins were clogged or broken, which surely contributed to flooding in some spots.

Mr. Quatrevaux argues that the “S&WB is too independent of the City and its voters.” He makes a compelling case. “The recent decades have seen a transfer-of-wealth program that unburdened ratepayers and taxpayers of their money, often for the purpose of financing excessive employee benefits: a 4 percent S&WB contribution rate for employee pensions; gifts of jewelry at holiday parties; pay for 26 hours of work in a 24-hour day, take-home cars and/or trucks for employees not required to perform emergency services … These are the consequences of an organization removed from political control and the scrutiny of voters.”

The abuses and neglect at the S&WB are maddening. And our community now must have a serious discussion about how to overhaul an agency that is vital to our safety.

Props to Mr. Quatrevaux for getting the conversation started.

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