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Funding, privatization would fix NO water woes

Failing infrastructure. Common system breakdowns. Design and implementation mistakes. Inability to maintain a workforce. Gross overbilling. Gross underbilling. Failure to enforce customer payment. Administrative follies. It all should add up to privatization for the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board. The only problem is ….

By now, the city’s public water provider and drainer has become a joke. Widespread publicity over a number of issues has revealed an extraordinary range of incompetence:

·       Declared boil advisory after boil advisory, now numbering 15 since the hurricane disasters of 2005.

·    S&WB work in uptown New Orleans caused damage potentially to hundreds of homes, where initial court rulings may cost the agency millions of dollars

·    The agency has hundreds of open positions, with dozens of employees routinely quitting, with the high vacancy rate blamed on having such employees in the city’s civil service and inefficient agency vetting of hires

·    Enough people have received so obviously distortedly-high bills that about a fifth of customers have challenged these; others stopped paying when the agency proved unwilling and unable to collect partly in consequence over the billing issues; and some received no bills at all but now have gotten collection notices

·    A revolving door of executives have filtered through the agency in just over a year, capped by top administrators receiving shoves out that door after netting large pay boosts despite the agency’s turmoil

The agency, run by a board of mayoral appointees and enshrined in state statute, would find these kinds of problems likely solved through privatization. The fiscal discipline involved would weed out such inefficiencies.

Over the past two decades reformers have floated that idea, only to have special interests beat it back. However, the recent rash of problems has demonstrated perhaps only this radical remake can fix such a far-gone organization, which even the leftists infesting city government might consider.

But before sending out the request-for-proposal, an inconvenient fact remains: no one would bid for the work, given the massive infrastructure needs. No one knows exactly how much it would cost to do varied tasks such as replace obsolete or upgrade serviceable equipment; ensure piping and other carriageways for water, sewage, and drainage doesn’t permit obstruction or allow leakage and goes where intended; and iron out back office technology woes, but it looks likely to exceed $1 billion.

Perhaps that answer will come when a special legislative task force on water, sewerage, and drainage provision in New Orleans reports early next year. One disturbing fact already has surfaced from its most recent meeting: a consultant who has worked previously with the agency argued for at least $50 million more a year spent just to keep the current system going without any major infrastructure changes.

That ratepayers could shoulder, but clearly the vaster work requires additional funding that no private operator would commit to out of its own pocket, and only if the city and state put a plan in place to overhaul infrastructure that will require money from somewhere else. Raising property taxes (Orleanians already pay one for S&WB operations) won’t close the gap either unless these reach confiscatory heights.

Given the combination of city politicians and special interests involved, privatization as their recommendation seems unlikely, even as sharper tools in the shed call for it. For that to work, the money will have to come from somewhere. But, the way things are going, that will have to happen anyway unless New Orleans wants to keep digging a deeper, more expensive hole.

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