Opinion: Lens reporter’s year in S&WB hell: collapsed pipes, collapsed billing system

Lens founder Karen Gadbois has been fighting the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans for more than a year. She has a bill upwards of $1,000 and other months she’s received conflicting statements. Some say she owes money, others say the embattled water agency owes her money.

She chronicled her (ongoing) experience: “When I called S&WB to report that clearly flawed bills had given way to no bill at all, I was told “not to worry” (which I translated as “STFU.”)

But I did worry, and I do worry.

My subsequent bills post-September 2017 came marked with “Important Information.” It said, “Previous bill totaling $948.58 is under investigation.” No idea what aperture in the human anatomy they pulled that $948.58 from. But I tried not to worry. Surely S&WB would get its act together. Someday.

Meanwhile, I decided to request copies of all my bills from 2017 to the present. Auditing my own account had all the appeal of a self-administered root canal, but if S&WB couldn’t get around to doing it, I guess it was going to fall to me.

Mea culpa: I’m not necessarily a better accountant than the S&WB. I managed to misplace the copies I had asked for, so I requested a second set. By the time they came, I had found the first set. Lining them up alongside each other was an eyeopener.”

Installation of water filters to screen lead will begin this week, Orleans school district says

Installation of long-promised water filters to screen lead from drinking water in schools started this week. McDonogh 35 Senior High School was the first recipient of the devices that will filter lead and harmful microbes that can enter the water during a boil water advisory.

A Lens reporter spotted an EcoWater Systems filter at district headquarters on Tuesday. School installation started Friday.

Two years ago, as Michigan officials were indicted for the city of Flint’s lead-in-water crisis, the Orleans Parish School Board and Recovery School District announced they would test school water for lead.

Instead, after input from experts and concerns that the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans could dispute the districts’ test results, the districts decided to install filters.

As city eyes restrictions, local group partners with HomeAway to tout benefits of short-term rentals

The Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity and HomeAway are hosting four meetings through the end of the month to counter criticism emanating from local community groups and government officials.

The first of those meetings was held Tuesday night in Treme, a neighborhood that has seen one of the densest concentrations of short-term rentals in the city.

“This is an opportunity to have a dialogue,” said short-term rental operator Penelope Randolph. “We’re hoping that together, when we put this information together, that it will come out where we’re all part of the solution and none of us are part of the problem.”

The Alliance and HomeAway seemed to recognize that changes to the city’s year-old short-term rental law — which critics have characterized as allowing the unfettered expansion of short-term rentals throughout much of the city — may be inevitable.

Orleans school district considers legal action to recover withheld taxes from city

The City of New Orleans appears to have misallocated tax money that voters approved specifically to fund several public agencies — schools, drainage, public safety and neighborhood security. The city instead sent some of that money to pension funds.

Now, the Orleans Parish School Board is considering suing the city to recoup what it’s owed. The district wouldn’t be the first to do so either. The Downtown Development District filed suit earlier this year.

It’s unclear how much money school board attorneys believe the school district is owed, but spreadsheets filed by the DDD in its suit show the city used more than $1 million annually in school taxes to pay the retirement systems, of about $150 million collected each year for schools.

Orleans School Board approves $450 million annual budget

The Orleans Parish School Board approved a $450 million 2019 budget on Thursday, the first since the July 1 return of all Recovery School District charter schools to local control.

Most of that money passes through the district’s central office to the city’s charter schools. The district oversees 76 charter schools, two traditional schools and a contract school for students in custody at the city’s juvenile detention center.

With all formerly state-run Recovery School District charters schools back under local control, the board has created new departments for charter oversight. It released a new executive organizational chart Thursday.

The district created the Office of School Support and Improvement to support schools and the Office of Equity and Accountability to manage the charter authorization process and hold schools accountable to their charter agreements.

Times-Picayune: The citizen journalist who helped New Orleans weather the storm

Times-Picayune reporter Mike Scott profiles our very own Karen Gadbois and the beginning days of The Lens.

Scott writes “Her digging, dismissed by some as “amateur investigations,” ended up uncovering widespread misuse of federal recovery money by local public agencies and — working with TV reporter Lee Zurick — led to such coveted journalism honors as a Peabody Award and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award.”

Cantrell ousts top officials at Sewerage and Water Board

Three top employees at the embattled New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board have resigned at the urging of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, the mayor announced at a press conference Monday morning. Cantrell also announced the impending appointment of retired Coast Guard Rear Admiral David Callahan, who will replace acting Director Jade Brown Russell as the head of the agency.

The outgoing employees, Deputy Directors Ronald Doucette, Sharon Judkins and Valerie Rivers, resigned effective immediately.

“The acting director asked for resignations immediately and at my request,” the mayor said.

The resignations come shortly after it was reported that, in the midst of a financial crisis at the utility, Doucette, Judkins and Rivers — all top officials earning six-figure salaries — were given substantial raises this summer. The raises were backdated to the beginning of the year, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune reported. 

The profile includes a list of trivia you can find here.

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Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...