Whether the city should create new stormwater-runoff fees to help pay for the Sewerage & Water Board and how to proceed with laws regulating short-term rentals were among the issues debated Tuesday night by four of the candidates for the District A seat on the New Orleans City Council.
Four candidates for the seat — Joe Giarrusso, Aylin Maklansky, Dan Ring and Drew Ward — appeared Tuesday night before the Alliance for Good Government to field a panel of policy questions seeking the group’s endorsement. The two other candidates for the seat, Tilman Hardy and Toyia Washington-Kendrick, arrived late and were not allowed to join the panel.
The first question the Alliance posed to the candidates was whether they would support the creation of stormwater-runoff fees to help pay down an anticipated $55 million in new revenue that the Sewerage & Water Board projects it will need to pay for the local match on federal projects.
Joe Giarrusso, citing a Bureau of Governmental Reseach report on the project from February, said the Sewerage & Water Board faces two key hurdles before imposing any new burdens on New Orleanians. First, residents need to feel more confident that the money they already pay is being properly spent, overcoming a “credibility gap,” Giarrusso said. Second, the fee itself must be structured in a way that is fair, putting more of a burden on larger properties that generate more stormwater runoff, and less on individual homes.
If those two conditions are met, “I can see being for it,” Giarrusso said.
Maklansky reminded the Alliance that the city already approved a gradual rate increase for the Sewerage & Water Board in 2012 to be implemented over an eight-year period, and that stormwater fees were rejected by policymakers as a funding source at that time. She would want to look at both that revenue and any additional federal grant opportunities before imposing new fees, she said, but acknowledged that the funding structure at the agency should be re-examined.
“With everything going on with the Sewerage & Water Board, I think everything is back on the table,” Maklansky said.
Ward said that he opposed any new fees, and that the top priority for the Sewerage & Water Board should be to restructure it within city government, instead of as a separate state agency. It was originally intended to govern multiple cities, Ward noted, but since it now only operates in New Orleans, it should no longer be separate.
“Passing a fee onto the homeowners when the city’s not upholding their end of it is just not going to work,” Ward said.
Ring made the same point — there should be no new fees, and the Sewerage & Water Board should become a department within city hall, integrated with the Department of Public Works.
“It’s not equitable for the citizens to pay more and more and get less and less each time,” Ring said.
The candidates were also asked their positions on the new laws allowing short-term rentals like AirBnBs in the city of New Orleans.
Ward said the whole debate was a glaring example of what happens when well-off white people break the law instead of poor or black people — the law gets changed, instead of the offenders being punished. The city already had laws regulating short-term rentals, but simply chose not to enforce them, and the new laws should be repealed.
“If someone wants to operate that kind of business, they should apply to operate it as a business,” Ward said.
Ring said that he felt the new laws were rushed through the City Council at the urging of the short-term rental industry, who just wanted to see an ordinance passed. Now, the rentals are starting to become a major problem in his Faubourg St. John neighborhood, he said, just like in the Marigny and more popular tourist areas of the city, and the law should be restructured.
“They’ve gone from being a simple rent a room out to rent a whole house out,” Ring said. “We really need to mitigate that.”
Maklansky, however, said while no law is perfect, the city made a “robust decision” after careful vetting through the City Planning Commission. Because AirBnB is becoming prolific through new technology, the law can be updated over time, she said.
“The law is often slow to catch up with reality,” Maklansky said. “As we see the data come in and what the market can bear, we’ll be able to make adjustments that take into account what the neighborhoods need.”
Giarrusso said that no changes to the law should be made until the city has had time to study the effects of the ordinances already passed. Enforcement has been strong in the French Quarter, where the short-term rentals are banned outright, but not as well in the rest of the city, and the city should ensure the number of rentals being offered on line is brought closer to the number of licenses being issued.
“We must proceed with a great deal of caution,” Giarrusso said. “If we’re going to be worried about affordable housing, if we’re going to be worried about taxes, we have to make sure the enforcement is being applied across the board.”
Hardy did not respond to a request by Uptown Messenger for his positions on the issues by late Wednesday morning, but Washington-Kendrick sent answers to both.
Washington-Kendrick wrote in an email:
I think stormwater fees could be a good idea if the conversation about it is sagacious and the plan is one that renders specific and research based options to support it.
I think most people are only thinking about the investment aspect of the idea of AirBnBs and not the vested aspect. Those neighborhoods that have homeowners that have a vested interest in their neighborhoods are being overlooked for the people who are just looking for a lucrative investment. These investors have no other interest in those neighborhoods except monetary gain. The fact that this is also making traditional New Orleans neighborhoods a thing of the past, like in the Treme area where one block only has two home that are occupied by their owners and all the rest are AirBnBs. This alone is making it impossible for everyday people to live in the city.
The Alliance also talked to the District B candidates, posing questions that the District B candidates have recently discussed in other forums, such as the use of traffic cameras, how to handle crime in New Orleans, and how to better manage street repairs.
The Alliance issued endorsements late Tuesday evening for Giarrusso and Bloom, as well as Kristin Gisleson Palmer in District C.but no endorsements in districts D and E. The group had previously endorsed Michael Bagneris for mayor, and Helena Moreno and Jason Williams for City Council At-Large.