No New Orleans home or business has been cut off from city water service for failure to pay trash fees, despite the passage more than a year ago of a city ordinance that granted such punitive power to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.
Further, the administration, which pushed repeatedly for the enforcement power, hasn’t requested that the Sewerage & Water Board take any such action, wrote Harold Marchand, deputy special counsel for the board, responding to a public-records request from The Lens.
The utility, which is legally independent from the city, collects the trash fee on the city’s behalf. It’s not uncommon for customers to pay the water portion of the bill but not the trash fee. Uncollected sanitation fees cost the city $8.5 million in 2011, according to a 2013 audit by the New Orleans Office of Inspector General.
The Lens was unable to determine why the city hasn’t enforced an ordinance that officials said would increase collections by more than $1 million per year. Marchand’s letter, dated March 17, said the Sewerage & Water Board and the city are still “refin[ing] and finaliz[ing] their processes” for turnoff. Other officials at the utility and the Mayor’s Office did not return requests for an explanation.
The Sewerage & Water Board has about 5,000 commercial accounts and 130,000 residential accounts in the city.
The past scofflaws even included a City Councilwoman at the time, and her husband, who is also another city official, the Clerk of Criminal District Court.
Landrieu, who came into office facing a potential deficit in the tens of millions of dollars, previously proposed a shutoff ordinance in 2012 as part of the 2013 budget. It didn’t even make it before the City Council for a vote.
The next year, the city was finally on solid financial ground, but it was facing huge unbudgeted costs for the 2014 budget and beyond. Among those were the still-unresolved issues of back payments due to the firefighters’ pension system — totaling $26.8 million — and the long-term costs of the Orleans Parish Prison consent decree.
Landrieu hoped to maximize revenue in part by aggressively going after money owed to the city. He again proposed the water shutoffs.
City officials predicted the measure would increase fee collections by nearly $1.3 million in 2014.
“That would be dependent on an ordinance to be passed by the council and adopted by the Sewerage & Water Board that would ensure there are consequences for failure to pay sanitation bills,” First Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin told council members in October 2013.
While the Sewerage & Water Board could already terminate service for water-bill delinquency, the ordinance had the potential to greatly expand the number of water shutoffs. The Inspector General’s report found that more than a third of the accounts it audited had past due sanitation fees.
The city, which has a poverty rate nearly 70 percent above the national average, had already doubled monthly sanitation fees during Landrieu’s first term, to $24 for residents and $48 for businesses.
In November 2013, the seven council members passed the shutoff ordinance unanimously, in spite of public criticism.
“What does the health department say about that?” resident Donald Chopin said at the meeting where the vote was taken. “That you can turn off people’s water. It’s a city filled with older people, with low-income people, with people who can’t pay their trash bill for whatever reason.”
Councilman James Gray said the ordinance was “not an attack on the poor but on the people who are able but unwilling to pull their share of the load.”
City officials noted that there are programs to reduce water and trash bills for low-income residents who are elderly or disabled.
In June, Landrieu signed an agreement with the Sewerage & Water Board allowing the agency to terminate service for trash bill delinquency “at the direction of the city.”
That same month, analysts for the United Nations called water shutoffs in Detroit an “affront to human rights.”
Late last year, the city lowered its expectations for 2014 sanitation collections by nearly $1.3 million — approximately the amount it had expected the fees to increase as a result of the ordinance — to $34.47 million from $35.74 million. That figure, however, could easily go back up when the city gives an update on its revenues later this month or early next month.
In an email, Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux told The Lens that he plans to follow up on his earlier audit later this year.
“The follow-up will seek to determine if and how agreed-upon recommendations have been implemented,”Quatrevaux wrote. “It also will compare sanitation fee collection performance in 2014 to the audited period.”