Back in the late 1960s, the late Stewart Brehm, Director of the Sewerage & Water Board, told Allan, then a reporter for the States-Item, that the sewerage and drainage system that was a crucial part of New Orleans infrastructure was falling apart and would have to be replaced at the costs of tens of millions of dollars that the city didn’t have. Brehm said that as politically unthinkable as an S&WB rate increase at that time might be, it would have to be done.
Well, not exactly.
There was no political consensus for a rate increase. The city was wrestling with the end of segregation and all the consequences that would flow from that. The community had just been divided by a huge fight over the construction and funding of the Louisiana Superdome. The business community wasn’t ready to step up for a rate increase. To use a phrase that Mayor Mitch Landrieu really likes, the city kicked the can down the road and has continued to do so for 40 years.
Now, Mayor Landrieu has come up with a rate increase plan that will raise $583 million, double our water bills over the next decade and begin the long process of restoring the sewerage and drainage systems to an acceptable level. Is the City Council ready to pass the plan? Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson says she’s on board. But City Council President Stacy Head says there have not been enough public hearings, although actually there were hearings that no one much paid attention to.
The respected Bureau of Governmental Research has checked out the plan and says that of the $583 million the plan would raise, less than half would actually go to repair the leaky pipes that now lose 40 percent of the water they are supposed to convey to our homes and businesses. The rest of the money would go for administration, certainly a legitimate need for the historically under-funded S&WB. However, that’s a detail that the BGR, not the mayor, made public. Critics are saying maybe the rate increase plan needs to be reviewed more carefully.
Beyond that, there are four candidates in runoffs for vacant Council seats in Districts B and E on Saturday. All four have said that if elected, they would not be inclined to vote for the rate increase. From a political point of view, that is exactly the right thing to say. One doesn’t very often run for public office on a platform endorsing rate increases.
Council President Head would like to delay the vote, perhaps tinker with the rate increase plan and generally demonstrate that Mayor Landrieu wishes are not her command. It is likely that a majority of New Orleans ratepayers are grudgingly aware that a rate increase in some form is inevitable. The feds are breathing down the city’s neck, threatening fines and other acts of oppression if a commitment isn’t made to fix the leaky sewerage and drainage systems now. But, even those who consider the rate increase inevitable and unavoidable probably aren’t in a great hurry to have it done.
Mayor Landrieu and Pro Tem S&WB President Ray Manning would like to have had the plan passed yesterday but immediate action seems increasingly unlikely. Still, there will come a moment, now or perhaps in January of 2013, when four or more members of the City Council will finally do the right thing and vote for a rate increase that will at last kick the can over the goal line after a 40-year interlude.
Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. Columbus is a paid consultant to the Dana Kaplan campaign, and they both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City Councilwoman Stacy Head, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and state Rep. Robert Billiot.