Months after the New Orleans City Council earmarked $1.9 million in federal COVID relief funds to pay thousands of residents’ overdue gas bills, the city has yet to cut a check to Entergy New Orleans — the city’s gas and electric utility — officials from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration confirmed in a council committee meeting on Tuesday.
Late last year, the council set aside $5 million in federal funds allocated through the American Rescue Plan Act to create a relief fund for gas utility assistance payments. The council and Entergy later identified 16,500 residential customers whose gas bills were in arrears, totalling $1.9 million. In early April, council members passed a resolution to draw down the relief fund and settle those bills. But three months later, the city’s Department of Treasury has yet to make the payment.
Meanwhile, city residents are seeing spiking electric bills, due primarily to increased fuel costs and extreme summer temperatures, Entergy officials said during a separate presentation at the meeting.
Appearing before the council utility committee on Tuesday, city Chief Financial Officer Norman White said that the payments had been withheld over concerns about compliance with ARPA eligibility requirements. The city’s use of ARPA money, intended to provide financial relief for cities and states impacted by COVID, is subject to audit, White noted.
He also said there was some concern that some of the payments may be duplicative since the city offered utilities payment assistance as part of the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program. (However, Entergy New Orleans Vice President of Regulatory and Public Affairs Courtney Nicholson said that program was primarily used for electric bills.)
“Let me tell you the problem currently. We are in July. We’re in July. The initial allocation was approved last year. We had a budget resolution — further ordinance passed this year. That was in April,” Councilman JP Morrell said to administration officials at Tuesday’s utility committee meeting. “A budget ordinance was passed. That is a law.”
Morrell said White’s concerns reminded him of his time in the state legislature — in the years immediately following Hurricane Katrina — working with the state Office of Community Development on the federally-funded, state-administered Road Home Program.
“You’d have the Office of Community Development say, ‘We have to do x, y and z in order to satisfy what the federal government wants.’ And over time, as we sat on those committees … and as we consulted what other states were doing, we realized that a lot of the obstacles — that were being constructed between people getting relief with federal dollars and government — were constructed by government itself.”
Morrell said he understood the concerns about the uses of federal funds, but he criticized the Department of Finance for what he said was a failure to speak to the council about the potential issues prior to the April vote or in the subsequent months. White responded that his office has been working to develop a federally compliant process — to determine that gas customers are eligible — and deliver the check to Entergy.
“Now that we know what the issues are … what is the timeline? What is it? Two weeks? A month? Two months?” Councilman Joe Giarrusso asked.
“What we’re saying is, if we work together, as soon as we get that, we can cut a check the next day,” White said.
Nicholson pointed out that Entergy has already provided the city a list of customers and the amounts they owe.
“Them being in arrears is not enough of a qualification, I guess is what I’m hearing,” she said. “I don’t know what the parameters should be.”
White said that the full list of customers along with a close analysis of ARPA eligibility parameters — working with Entergy — would be enough to get the process started. He and Nicholson agreed to meet in private after the committee meeting.