Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans meter cover Creative Commons by Flickr user izik

New Orleans City Council President Stacy Head accused Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Monday of trying to ram a doubling of sewage and water rates through the council on Thursday, without, she said, the issue having been fully vetted.

Head is asking her colleagues to postpone the vote because she said the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans has failed to explain how it would spend the $583 million in additional money that it would collect over eight years.

Landrieu opposes any delay.

“We’re at the point where it’s time to act,” said Ryan Berni, his spokesman. “There’s no reason to delay since it’s imperative to move forward.”

If approved Thursday, the new rates would go into effect next month. Consumers pay for clean water and sewage disposal every time they take a shower, flush a toilet, wash dishes and so on.

The mayor wants the vote on Thursday, Head believes, because that will be the final meeting for Councilwoman Diana Bajoie, whom Landrieu appointed to the council in June to fill a vacant seat after an unusual standoff.

“I suspect that the mayor would like to have his appointment to the City Council vote on the matter,” Head said.

Berni didn’t address that contention.

Bajoie, formerly a veteran state legislator, did not return a phone call on Monday requesting a response to Head’s comments. On Thursday, she told The Lens that she was studying whether to support the proposed increase after meeting with the mayor’s staff.

Bajoie will be replaced by the winner of Saturday’s District B runoff between LaToya Cantrell, who heads the Broadmoor Improvement Association, and Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.

Cantrell told The Lens that she would not support the increase now. Kaplan said she is open to the idea but wants more information. Head is supporting Cantrell while Landrieu is backing Kaplan.

Thursday also will be the final council meeting for Ernest Charbonnet, appointed by the council to fill another vacant seat. Last week, Charbonnet said he was willing to vote on the issue Thursday, though he didn’t say how he’d vote. He did not return a phone call on Monday.

Charbonnet will be replaced by the winner of Saturday’s District E runoff between state Rep. Austin Badon and attorney James Gray. Badon said he opposes the increase because it would overburden the poor. Gray did not return two phone messages left for him at his law office.

To Head’s dismay, at least one council member – At-Large member Jackie Clarkson – has told her that she wants to vote on the proposed increase Thursday as scheduled.

“The typical council protocol for deferring a matter of this magnitude and having it vetted thoroughly is not being followed,” Head said, adding, “The truncated time frame is being pushed by the mayor.”

Clarkson did not respond on Monday to an interview request.

The other council members – Kristin Gisleson Palmer, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Susan Guidry – also did not respond to interview requests on Monday.

The Sewerage & Water Board, with Landrieu’s support, gave initial approval to the increase on Nov. 14. Under it, the average monthly residential water and sewer bill in New Orleans would climb by 10 percent a year, or from $52.50 to $86.36 in 2016, according to S&WB figures.

The board did not provide the higher cost for the succeeding years through 2020. Calculations by others put the 2020 rate at over $100 per month.

With her comments to The Lens on Monday, Head seems to be sharpening her differences with Landrieu, the first-term mayor.

Head said that she doesn’t oppose the proposed rate increase and that she believes at least a partial increase is warranted. She noted that she pushed her council colleagues in 2007 to approve water and sewer rates by 82 percent for businesses and 43 percent for residential users.

“My plan is to educate the public,” Head said Monday. “I don’t think there has been significant public engagement.”

Ed Chervenak, a University of New Orleans political scientist, agreed.

“The public is aware that the sewer and water system has deteriorated,” Chervenak said. “I don’t think the public is aware that the council would be voting on this yet and the cost involved.”

Head said she is trying to schedule a Public Works Committee hearing to thoroughly air the proposal. She said she has been asking the S&W Board for information since April on how the extra money would be spent, and she provided several emails as proof.

In opposing the postponement of Thursday’s vote, Clarkson told Head that she instead has scheduled a council budget committee meeting for Wednesday to solicit public comments on the proposed rate increase.

Janet Howard, president of the Bureau of Governmental Research, said that doesn’t give the council enough time to digest any new information before the vote on Thursday. The nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog will issue a report on the rate increase on Wednesday.

“The council should hold a well-publicized public hearing,” Howard said. “The public deserves an opportunity to comment on something that affects them. A deferral request makes all the sense in the world, regardless of what you think about the proposal. There is a transparency problem.”

The S&WB has long been derided, with the watchdog group in October lamenting the board’s  “dysfunctional governance.”

Most recently, the board held a public meeting to discuss its 2013 budget – on Friday night at the Port of New Orleans building, which is tucked behind the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

Of the 29 people in attendance, most appeared to be Sewerage & Water Board staffers, along with a handful of journalists. Stephen Stuart, an analyst for the Bureau of Governmental Research, seemed to be the only member of the public in attendance.

No one had any questions or comments for Robert Miller, the S&WB’s deputy director, following his 45-minute presentation.

“Friday is hardly the night to get a crowd to turn out,” Howard said on Monday.

Miller declined an interview request following his presentation Friday night, saying he would answer questions on Monday. The Lens wasn’t able to reach him on Monday, however.

The water board’s website does contain some information on the proposed increase for users who click on the Documents & Reports tab.

Landrieu has been pushing for an increase in water system rates following reports that Katrina delivered a hammer blow to the agency’s pipes, pumping stations and catch basins.

Berni, the mayor’s spokesman, said the city loses 40 to 50 percent of its treated water — compared to a national average of less than 10 percent — and has $3.3 billion in infrastructure needs. The federal government is demanding that $300 million of that be spent on replacing and fixing old sewer pipes.

“The Sewerage & Water Board has a system that is in peril,” Berni said. “We have to adequately fund the drinking water and waste water system. We have bond obligations. The can has been kicked down the road many times before.”

Last month, recognizing the lack of public trust in the water board, Landrieu called for reducing its board, reducing their terms and adding more experts to it.

Earlier this year, he insisted that the water system not raise rates more than 10 percent a year.

Chervenak said the City Council has traditionally resisted raising the rates.

“It’s a tough vote because it’s a poor city,” he said. “A lot of people are on low-income and fixed incomes.”

Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism....