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ZURIK: New Orleans S&WB has moral obligation to pay judgments, council member says

Updated: May. 19, 2022 at 10:01 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board has 263 unpaid judgments against it. That’s 263 times the board has either lost in court or admitted it was wrong and was ordered to pay damages.

Those 263 cases represent hundreds of people, but so far, the agency has refused to pay.

The total of the delinquent bills adds up to just under $19 million by the Sewerage and Water Board’s calculations.

Arnaud and Pamela Wauters have one of the judgments against the agency.

In 2002, Pamela, a marathon runner, had just come in first in her age group in a 5K race in New Orleans. As they walked back to their car to put her medal away, Pamela stepped into a pile of debris, and her foot dropped into an uncovered Sewerage and Water Board storm drain below.

They sued to try to recoup some costs for medical bills and ended up reaching a $25,000 settlement with the Sewerage and Water Board in 2007.

After 15 years, they still haven’t seen a dime of the money they’re owed.

They even reached out to the president of the Sewerage and Water Board, Mayor LaToya Cantrell for help. Cantrell called Pamela and apologized for how long the payment was taking. She said she was going to see what she could do.

However, weeks later, Cantrell sent Pamela a letter, telling her it was a Sewerage and Water Board issue, and that someone from the office would be in contact.

That never happened.

“It made me angry because I thought that there was something she could do, being the mayor,” said Pamela. “I was very disappointed that there’s nothing she can do either.”

FOX 8 has been asking the Sewerage and Water Board for answers involving this report and the money owed to claimants. Here’s a timeline of our correspondence:

Tuesday, May 10, 2022:

- FOX 8 requests an interview with Sewerage & Water Board executive director Ghassan Korban and sends a series of questions for clarification with a deadline of close of business on Thursday, May 12.

- Later that day, a spokesperson responds, saying the email contained all the information she needs and saying she will get with the legal team to address some of the questions.

May 12, 2022:

- Deadline for response passes. FOX 8 asks the spokesperson why we never heard back.

- Spokesperson responds, saying she misunderstood the deadline, so FOX 8 moves the deadline to Friday, May 13.

May 13, 2022:

- Spokesperson asks us for a copy of the document that referenced all the unpaid claims.

- FOX 8 sends the copy, which we received from the agency via a public records request, back to the spokesperson.

- Spokesperson acknowledges receipt of the document, but again misses the deadline to answer questions.

May 16, 2022:

- Fox 8 emails the spokesperson to point out another deadline was missed.

- Spokesperson says she talked to the legal department but wanted to talk to an attorney at the agency when she returned to the office on Wednesday, May 18.

FOX 8 has not heard back since.

The New Orleans City Council has no control over the Sewerage and Water Board, but one council member says the agency has a moral obligation to pay victims.

“They should pay that they should pay them as soon as possible,” said Joe Giarusso, who represents Council District A. “So, I’ve talked with almost everybody possible. And it’s really, to me, a question now of commitment, and when are they going to get committed to paying these judgments?”

Giarusso has urged the agency to at least come up with a payment plan to start issuing some of the money. But state law doesn’t allow any judge to force the agency to pay.

ZURIK: Residents wait years for payments from Sewerage & Water Board

“And then it’s the same old sort of thing that happens with city judgments. Because they are not required unless it is a federal judgment. Then they can stand put until they have the funds,” said Giarusso. “So, until the law changes for cities and state, incorporated entities, it’s going to be the same thing.”

Brenda Lackings lives in and operates a daycare out of Giarusso’s district, on Claiborne Avenue.

A five-year Sewerage and Water Board construction project damaged her property and left the children she cares for rattled.

“The vibrations were severe,” said Lackings. “My home is a two-story home. Vibrations are felt much higher in an upstairs complex. I had been knocked from a chair using the computer. Children in my center will literally shaking. No matter what time of day it was. The vibrations were constant.”

Court records show the Sewerage and Water Board owes Lackings nearly $61,000. She’s also received nothing.

“Sewage and Water Board needs to be honest with us about the money. This money was earmarked long before the project started. In all fairness, and honesty, I feel that it should be paid accordingly,” said Lackings.

She says she’s tried every recourse she can think of, but so far, feels as though she’s going in circles without any answers.

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