The New Orleans City Council on Thursday voted to transfer a $5 million fine paid by Entergy New Orleans to the Council Utilities Regulatory Office, where it will be held until the council decides how to spend it.
The timeline for that decision is still up in the air. But council members who spoke to The Lens this week said they expected the issue to come up for public discussion and comment before any final decision is made.
Before the council levied the fine, members said the money would be used to help with the Sewerage and Water Board’s lengthy list of infrastructure needs. Sewerage and Water Board director Ghassan Korban laid out three possible projects at a council meeting in February that would cost between $1.5 million and $4 million.
But according to Councilman Joseph Giarrusso, the council is still waiting on a more precise, detailed accounting of how much funding is needed for each project and why before it appropriates the money.
The City Council levied the fine on Entergy in February for its role in a scheme to hire actors to make speeches at City Council meetings in favor of its estimated $210 million power plant in eastern New Orleans. The council had briefly considered rescinding its approval for the plant altogether, until Entergy announced that it had already spent $96 million on the project before even breaking ground. Entergy attorneys and the council’s utility consultants said the city would likely be on the hook for that sum if the plant wasn’t built.
Earlier this month, The Advocate reported that there were some behind-the-scenes disagreements between council members and Mayor LaToya Cantrell over how the $5 million should be spent.
Everyone appears to be in agreement that some of the money should go to the Sewerage and Water Board. The question is how much.
Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen represents District E, where Entergy’s new gas plant is being built. She told The Advocate that she wanted half of the money to go to the Sewerage and Board and the other half to go to development projects in eastern New Orleans. One specific project she cited was the redevelopment of Lincoln Beach.
In a Thursday email, Nguyen’s Chief of Staff Terrie Guerin told The Lens that Nguyen continues to believes that there are areas in her district that need this funding for development.
Cantrell vehemently opposes that idea and wants the entire sum to go to the Sewerage and Water Board. According to the Advocate, she sent a letter to the council saying it was “disturbing” that members were considering other projects. Her office did not respond to requests for comment.
Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer appears to lean closer to Nguyen’s proposal, according to her Chief of Staff Andrew Sullivan.
“The Mayor has made it clear she wants it to go to Sewerage and Water Board,” Sullivan told The Lens. “I’m not sure everyone agrees with that. I know my council member doesn’t agree with that necessarily. She feels like it spread over all of the districts. … She has said that [District] E should probably get a little more.”
Councilwoman Helena Moreno’s Chief of Staff, Andrew Tuozzolo, said that while much of the $5 million will likely go to the Sewerage and Water Board, it won’t simply be a lump sum payment.
“The intention was never just to write a check to Sewerage and Water Board,” he said. “I don’t think anyone feels comfortable doing that. … At the end of the day, the council wants to see and the people need to see a concrete project. And Ghassan has come forward with that, to his credit.”
The first option Korban presented to the council in February is a $2 million weatherization upgrade to one of the five turbines that power the city’s water pumps — Turbine No. 6. That pump can’t be used when the outside temperature dips below 45 degrees without risking “catastrophic” damage. The inability to use that pump in cold whether was one of the reasons New Orleans was subject to a boil-water advisory in November.
The second option would cost $4 million and allow the pumping system to better cope with Entergy feeder outages. The third option would upgrade two steam-powered pumps to electrical motors. That would cost $1.5 million.
Giarrusso, for his part, told The Lens he prefers the weatherization upgrade to Turbine No. 6.
“I feel like it’s really hard when you have the most current, up-to-date turbine that can’t operate in temperatures under 45 degrees,” he said. “I certainly understand New Orleans East getting a portion of the money, because that’s where the plant is and you want to offset some of the environmental concerns or build green infrastructure. But I think what serves the people in the city the best is the money going to Sewerage and Water Board.”
Council members Jay Banks, Jared Brossett and Jason Williams did not respond to requests for comment on this story.