NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - As the Sewerage and Water Board grapples with cash flow issues and ongoing billing complaints, a New Orleans City Council member joined its board of directors.
"Have we fixed whatever that was that was getting people $1,800 bills when it’s two people and a dog in the house? Have we gotten better with that?” asked Councilman Jay Banks of S&WB managers during the board meeting.
“That's harder to quantify,” said S&WB Chief Financial Officer Yvette Downs.
The agency acknowledges that many customers continue to dispute the amount of their water bills.
"We are collecting less money because of the dispute,s and that’s why we’re focusing so much on reaching out, talking to our customers,” said S&WB Executive Director Ghassan Korban.
Recently it came to light that two S&WB workers were sleeping on the job as water pressure dropped in November of last year.
"With people sleeping on the job - and I do want to tell you that will not be met with anything lightly, it will be taken seriously, it will be dealt with swiftly,” said Korban during the board meeting.
Mayor Latoya Cantrell, who serves as S&WB president, applauded Korban for acting quickly to address the employees’ actions.
"We don’t sleep, we work around here, and it will not be tolerated,” Cantrell said.
"The Sewerage and Water Board has two major issues: infrastructure and image. We are not going to fix infrastructure overnight, but we’ve got to take real positive steps to get the image corrected. Things like having employees sleeping on the job, that’s just unacceptable. Now by no means do I want to infer that all of the Sewerage and Water Board employees were asleep, because that’s not the case,” Councilman Banks said.
The S&WB’s cash flow issues are so bad that the agency fears some of its contractors may cease their work.
"Because of the fiscal difficulty that we’re facing and the inability to pay our vendors, some of these deadlines may be challenged a little bit because legitimately, some of our vendors are facing difficulty on their own by not getting paid, and that may be slowing the progress down, and [it’s] possible it would be the likelihood of maybe walking off the job,” Korban stated.
"That speaks to the cash flow problem, front and center. It speaks to the $37-plus million that we owe vendors right now,” Cantrell said.
Councilman Banks said given the internal issues, he is not ready to ask S&WB customers to pay more in fees.
"Until we get enough W’s to make the public feel that we are really working on their behalf, I’m not comfortable yet. Now, do I know we have to do it? Yes, but we’ve got to get some of this low-hanging fruit. We’ve got to make things happen so that the public can feel confident that if we do, or when we do have to ask for a rate increase, it is not going to be wasted,” said Banks.
The agency said it has made huge progress in addressing some of its problems.
"We are leaving what I would call a crisis, reactionary mode. We’re going into more of stable mode,” said Korban.