Zurik: S&WB overtime spewing out of control

Published: Apr. 29, 2015 at 6:41 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 30, 2015 at 2:05 AM CDT
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A resident's photo shows an S&WB worker, apparently napping in a work truck at a job site.
A resident's photo shows an S&WB worker, apparently napping in a work truck at a job site.

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The Sewerage & Water Board refuses to answer our questions about millions of dollars coming out of your pocket. In this new investigation, we have photos and internal records that raise questions about the management of the agency.

A Sewerage & Water Board employee, asleep on the job - a witness tells us the worker was apparently napping for hours.

In Lakewood South, another picture shows an army of workers there for weekend repair work to fix a leaky fire hydrant.

"As you can see, there are just a lot of men in the street, not doing anything," says the resident, who asked to remain anonymous. "There was probably twice as many men on the job as what you see in that picture."

Six men in the snapshot, on the job for six hours. It was not an emergency job, but it still cost ratepayers plenty of money.

"That's just a lot of people, a lot of money wasted," says our witness.

Sewerage & Water Board records show that every employee on the job fixing that fire hydrant was earning overtime – a portion of the nearly $10 million in overtime the Sewerage & Water Board paid out in 2014.

"To have overtime at these rates just is a red flag that something needs to be evaluated," said Bureau of Governmental Research executive director Janet Howard in a 2010 interview, when we should her overtime figures from that time period. "They are shocking."

Five years later, the overtime payments have actually gone up, from $7.3 million in 2010 to nearly $9.7 million in 2014.

"I would say, if they operated more efficiently during the regular work day, they would probably not need as much overtime," says our New Orleans resident, who has a gallery of pictures documenting Sewerage & Water Board workers, standing around on the job. "My frustration is being a lifelong resident of the city of New Orleans, and seeing how long it takes to get work done. This is not a new problem, this has been going on for decades."

Our investigation found that46 employees made more in extra pay last year than from their base salary. That includes water purification operator Kerry Foret, who had a base salary of $65,000 but made $100,000 in extra pay.

The Sewerage & Water Board keeps its time sheets in binders. We reviewed them and found many examples of employees being paid enormous amounts of overtime. On one weekend in September 2014, for instance, ratepayers paid one employee for two straight 23-hour days. We found other employees logging a 24-hour work day.

"That is remarkable," our resident says. "I couldn't do that."

The Sewerage and Water Board also pays out standby time - an employee receives that when he or she is listed as available to report to a job site with limited notice.

On April 14, we requested an interview with the current S&WB executive director Cedric Grant. Communications Director Robert Jackson told us they would "look on his calendar" and "get back" to us.

Two days later, we asked again about a time and date. Jackson responded, "I haven't got it locked down yet. Hopefully I'll have something tomorrow."

Last week, we emailed again: "Have you finalized our interview yet?" And Wednesday morning - well past our deadline for this story - Jackson suggested an interview with Grant on Thursday or Friday, following broadcast of this report.

Five years ago, we interviewed St. Martin, the executive director at the time, about the excessive overtime. She blamed much of it on a reduction of employees since Hurricane Katrina.

"We definitely need to hire more steam plant engineers and train more people," St. Martin told us.

St. Martin told us in 2010 that they were in the process of hiring more employees, and that would reduce overtime. Records show the employee count has grown from 972 in 2010 to 1060 last year. But instead overtime being reduced, it has grown dramatically.

Internal records raise even more questions about the water board's management. Remember that fire hydrant repair that our New Orleans resident told us about? Work sheets show each employee on the job earned regular, not overtime, hours.

But when you look at their time sheets, they were actually paid overtime - 12 hours for that day. The work sheets appear to be inaccurate.

"Maintenance crews are overstaffed," the resident says. "They'll send three or four men out to change a leaky water meter. I've seen three men go out to paint fire hydrants. You'll see one man digging a whole with three or four men, standing around watching them. You'll see a bunch of men standing in the street, not doing anything. So it's very much visible, how inefficient their maintenance crews are."

Photos taken uptown show another weekend repair job to fix a water leak. A crew spent much of one Saturday making repairs, and many workers spent some of the day just standing around.

This work happened on June 8, 2013. Two months later, records show the job was labeled "complete." But nearly two years after that, look at the street - the gravel pit has yet to be repaved.

Neighbors say they've called to complain. "Our Sewerage & Water Board rates were doubled last year," says our resident. "It would be nice if we felt like we were getting something for that money."

While the Sewerage & Water Board has raised those rates, they've also raised their overtime payments. Fighting crime may be the top concern for most New Orleans residents, but fighting water leaks costs more overtime.

Remember, last year the Sewerage & Water Board spent nearly $9.7 million on overtime. Compare that to the NOPD, which spent $7,658,891.01 on extra money fighting crime in 2014. That raises yet another question for an agency that has so far been unwilling to provide us with answers.

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