The reason you, the voter, elect a City Council is to serve as a watchdog over the municipal budget. That is our primary function, and while our daily lives can be consumed with issues like public safety, quality jobs and working schools, most assume that government will act to promote and protect the public interest.
But when politics is concerned, this public interest can often be glossed over. That is why it is important that you hold your council members accountable and question why you are being asked to pay fines, fees and taxes without proper examination.
A prime example of this is on our agenda this week and grew out of the recent consideration of the often complicated, and always lucrative, utility contracts, which are awarded by the council for $6 million-a-year for a lengthy time period. For decades, these contracts have been awarded to out-of-state firms who have maintained strong political ties to local political organizations.
As the work gets done the costs for these contracts are passed on to you through your utility bill. There is a vested interest by some to quietly move this issue to the side. You get your lights on; politicians and their donors get rich; everyone’s happy. Right?
“Not so fast,” said the Inspector General. He recently asked why these very large utility contracts, with direct consequences for consumers, are not subject to billing and reporting guidelines like other city contracts. I think this is a good question.
In my years of service on the Council, I have questioned many privately-held contracts that provide public services. I’m running out of time to review them all, but now is the time to get it right on utility regulation. Last year the Council issued a Request for Qualifications and several local firms applied for the first time for the Utility contract. These proposals could have saved ratepayers money. But, we’ll never know because my colleagues, specifically the Chair of the Utility Committee, refused to review them and the same-old well-connected consultants were rehired.
In an effort to avoid this type of behavior in the future, I am asking the council to vote on billing guidelines that were developed with advice from other regulators, are standard in nature, and answer concerns outlined by the Inspector General. As stated, such guidelines are standard and are used by many companies like Entergy to control legal, engineering and other expert costs.
Though these guidelines have been available since mid-January, the Council has failed to act on them. I hope you will join me in such a discussion this Thursday at the Council meeting where I am reintroducing them for action. As ratepayers, I’m urging you to let your council representatives know that you would like them to be discussed and voted on.
You can get a copy from my office at 658-1060.
I know you make your family keep to a budget and spend their dollars wisely. Why shouldn’t your city government do the same? See you March 23 at the Council meeting to support this effort.
Stacy Head is the president of the New Orleans City Council and previously represented the council’s Uptown-based District B.