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Mayor has concerns about proposal to increase water bills

New Orleans, La. -- The Sewerage and Water Board is to consider a huge rate hike plan at its Wednesday meeting, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu has serious concerns about the proposed rate hike package.  So do some local business owners and residents.

Under the proposed plan, the combined water and sewer bill for a typical home owner would increase from $52.50 a month to about $103.69 a month in 2016, according to the Sewerage and Water Board.

For medium size businesses, an average monthly bill of $2,900 would grow to more than $5,000 in 2016.

At the Quick Wash and Dry Laundromat, the owner said his water bill is easily $700 a month, so the thought of doubling it seems out of the question.

"That's a lot of money that affects the business," said Louie Nguyen.

At Soft Touch Car Wash on Canal Boulevard, there is also anxiety over the proposed rate hikes.  The business uses between 5,000 and 7,500 gallons of water each month.

"As a co-owner of this business I am very concerned that it's going to have a huge impact on the services that I can provide to the community at the rates that we're providing the car wash," said Rachelle Bourg.

Bourg said the effects of such a rate increase would have a wide-ranging negative impact for her business.  "You could see the police officers coming through. We give free car washes to the 3rd [Police] District -- how long am I going to be able to afford to give free car washes when my water goes up?" she stated.

Mayor Landrieu, who serves as president of the Sewerage and Water Board, says he is concerned about the rate hike proposal.

"I'm not comfortable with the Sewerage and Water Board moving forward yet on this level of rate increase," Landrieu stated.

Landrieu said federal funds may reduce the amount of what is an inevitable rate hike.  "We've been very successful in our negotiations with FEMA in generating money, for example, to rebuild the power plant," he said.

To be sure, the problem of the city's decaying sewer and water system is serious.  New Orleans has been under an EPA consent decree for decades.

"We have kicked the can down the road for more than 30 years, we're bleeding 40 percent of our water, it's costing us a fortune," said Landrieu.

Still, Landrieu wants the Sewerage and Water board to explore options for reducing the proposed rate increases.

"I'm going to ask the Sewerage and Water Board, and their team of experts to go back to the drawing board for 30 to 60 days and to analyze whether or not these rate increases can be extended over a longer period of time," he said.

Many business owners said what is proposed is too drastic.

"Our customers are going to be affected, so their water bills are going to double, so who's going to have the extra revenue to come in and get the car washes?" said Bourg.

And Nguyen said if he's forced to raise his prices dramatically to pay higher water bills, that will ultimately turn off some of his customers and could drive him out of business, entirely.

"If we jack up the price and they cannot afford it and we'll have to shut it down," Nguyen stated.

Despite the letter the mayor sent to the board outlining his concerns, a board spokeswoman said Tuesday afternoon that the matter remains on Wednesday's agenda.

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