Zurik: S&WB chief vows less overtime, greater efficiency at troubled agency

Published: May. 14, 2015 at 4:50 PM CDT|Updated: May. 15, 2015 at 2:05 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The head of the Sewerage and Water Board says overtime will go down this year. The pledge follows a FOX 8 investigation that revealed S&WB pays more in overtime than even the New Orleans Police Department.

"Quite honestly, I'm hiring," S&WB executive director Cedric Grant tells us in a recent interview. "I just want to say that to anybody… I'm hiring now."

Grant says he'd like to hire a couple of hundred more employees.

"We've got to get a better workforce," Grant says.

He tells us the current short staff has lead to more overtime, and he points to a document that shows the amount of work done each year by his office. Since 2011, work orders - the number of calls employees go out on - have actually decreased. But emergency repairs have increased. During that same time period, overtime has also gone up by almost $2 million.

"Over time, it will go down," Grant says. "It will go down as we increase staffing. It will go down as we improve the processes for how we install the infrastructure… I'm seeing already trends that it is going down."

Our investigation found last year 46 employees made more in extra pay than 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.

We also reviewed time sheets which showed employees getting paid for most of the day and, sometimes, even the entire day. One weekend in September last year, ratepayers paid one employee for two straight 23-hour days. We found other employees with a 24 hour workday.

Grant acknowledges such long work shifts are not safe. "Quite honestly we're looking at those kinds of examples first and see if we can manage through them," Grant tells us.

One long-time New Orleans resident, who asked not to be identified, explained his frustrations with the agency. He showed us one picture of a worker sleeping on a the job. He had many others, showing employees standing around at work sites.

"Maintenance crews are overstaffed," he told us. "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."

When we ask Grant if he thinks S&WB crews are overstaffed, he says, "I'm looking at that very carefully. I'm hoping that I can get to something that's a better, right size. And I think that's got a lot to do with equipment and skill set."

Grant has been on the job less than a year, since last August.

"I'm holding people accountable, at every instance," he insists. "I've probably issued more discipline since I've been at the Sewerage & Water Board than I have in the last five years of my career."

He promises the Sewerage and Water Board will operate more efficiently. Remember, it's an agency that is embarking on a $3.3 billion capital improvement program - an agency that last year doubled rates, even as it continued to pay more in overtime than the department that fights crime.

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