The buck stops with Mayor Landrieu and the entire City Council for the mounting problems at the Sewerage & Water Board. Citizens who mopped up last weekend or are worried about today’s lack of pumping capacity have no one to blame but their elected officials – all of whom have clearly failed them.
Though not the most affable fellow, the widely respected Cedric Grant took on the Herculean task of trying to reform the city’s most entrenched, good-old-boy public agency in 2014. Grant quickly found that bringing change, especially weeding out ineffective staff and modernizing operations would not be fast or easy.
Mayor Landrieu made the problem even worse when he led an effort to remove the City Councilmembers who historically served on the board and replace them with more of his appointees.
By serving on the Board, Councilmembers had an easy way to better understand or question the agency’s internal operating procedures and priorities. Unlike the airport, the Council does not have a dedicated committee that monitors the board. Perhaps the S&WB should be added to the monthly agenda of the Council’s Utilities Committee.
Even without seats on the board, the Council still approves the agency’s annual budget and can call them to address the Council anytime. Many citizens believe it is the obligation of every Councilmember to be fully knowledgeable about the agency’s daily operations, construction priorities and long-term needs.
The real issue is money and priorities. The S&WB’s equipment and infrastructure is antiquated. As we see today, even repairing broken pumps is time consuming. Often parts have to be specially manufactured. The S&WB maintenance budget is woefully underfunded. Catch basins are often clogged not just with normal debris but with a asphalt and other construction materials from road or sewer repairs.
Even if your catch basin is operating, the network of pipes that carry your water to the pumps don’t function properly due to lack of long-term maintenance. Re-evaluating the annual maintenance schedule for pumps must be done. There also appears to be problems getting contracts expedited for sewer and other public works projects. Perhaps the City must hire more experienced engineers to properly supervise the projects.
Uptown residents were lucky this past weekend. Though the massive SELA-funded reconstruction projects on Louisiana, Napoleon, Jefferson and other streets caused significant inconvenience, all the pipes and catch basins were replaced which will minimize future flooding, except during catastrophes. Mid-city residents only wish they had it so good.
Even though S&WB rates have gone up and federal dollars are at hand, the agency needs a dedicated long-term funding source for maintenance. Perhaps the city should re-prioritize the use of existing millage to find the dollars needed.
Since hurricane season is far from over, the City’s on-going drainage and flooding problems have emerged as a major campaign issue. With today’s announcement from the National Hurricane Center that an increased number of hurricanes are expected this year, the mayor and council must move quickly to get matters under control before New Orleans floats away.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Foster Campbell, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. Her current clients include District B City Council candidate Seth Bloom and At-Large City Council candidate Helena Moreno.