The New Orleans City Council will vote Thursday on a controversial ordinance, proposed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, requiring the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans to cut off water service for residents and businesses who are delinquent on their monthly trash fee, a staff member for the ordinance’s sponsor, Council President Jackie Clarkson, told The Lens.
Thursday’s meeting will be the first time the ordinance will be subject to public debate. It was introduced in late October, deferred without discussion during the Nov. 7 meeting and has not gone before any of the council’s committees.
The city’s sanitation fee is $24 per month for residential customers and $48 for large commercial customers. The Sewerage and Water Board collects it on behalf of the city.
The proposed ordinance says that the Sewerage and Water Board “shall terminate the water service to any premises or person delinquent” in paying the trash fee. According to state law, a customer receives a delinquency notice after missing the payment deadline. He then has 30 days to pay before his water is shut off.
The city already tacks on a 15 percent penalty for late payments.
The Sewerage and Water Board charges $75 to reconnect a water meter that has been shut off for nonpayment. Spokesman Robert Jackson didn’t respond to a question about whether that fee would apply for trash-fee shutoffs.
Clarkson’s staff member, Legislative Director Joe Rochelle, said Clarkson initially expressed concerns about how low-income residents would be affected by the measure. In response, Rochelle said, the administration referred Clarkson to a section of city code that cuts the residential fee by more than half for low-income customers who are over 65 or disabled.*
When The Lens asked if the city plans to expand such relief to people who don’t meet those criteria, Rochelle said he didn’t know. Requests for comment to the mayor’s office were not returned by publication.
Landrieu first floated the measure for the 2013 city budget, but it never went before the council.
His 2014 budget proposal, also up for a vote on Thursday, counts on $1.3 million in increased sanitation fees, expected as a result of the threat of having one’s water shut off.
In a hearing on Landrieu’s proposed budget, Councilwoman Stacy Head accused the mayor’s office of passing the politically difficult ordinance to the council. Head said the state law allowing the city to collect trash fees through the Sewerage and Water Board also allows the utility to shut off water for failing to pay them.
“This is a difficult policy decision and I’m sure you’d love to pass that hot potato to us, but the law is clear,” she said.
However, Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble pointed The Lens to the part of city code that says the city is solely responsible for enforcing payment of trash fees. The proposed ordinance keeps that language, but it adds a sentence saying that the city can authorize the Sewerage & Water Board to cut off water for nonpayment of trash fees.
This story was modified after publication to include Tyler Gamble’s explanation for why the City Council must amend city code.
*Correction: This story originally said the city cuts the trash fee in half for some low-income residents, but it’s more than half: from $24 to $10. (Nov. 21, 2013)