At today's meeting, the Interim Emergency Management and Support Team of the S&WB answered questions regarding the status of ongoing customer billing issues and its civil service hiring process. In addition, they provided a report on system operations during the 2017 hurricane season and the post-season transition plan.
Members of this team, which include former Louisiana Recovery Authority Director Paul Rainwater, were selected to provide administrative, financial and technical capacity to the Sewerage & Water Board throughout hurricane season and the months following.
The Council began by questioning the S&WB representatives about the high volume of billing errors and complaints. A systematic report compiled by Councilmember Brossett's office details more than 100 constituent complaints with overbilling in District "D" alone.
"There has to be some way to fix this problem for people without inconveniencing them," said Councilmember-At-Large Jason Williams. "How can we ask people to leave their job, to come pay a bill they don't even owe?"
District "E" Councilmember Gray said, "I think the largest issue we're seeing with constituents and these bills is not only that they have another bill to pay, but that they're not being treated as human beings by a government agency. This cannot be allowed to continue. We have to treat people with a certain level of respect and dignity."
The team addressed the Council's concerns and said that while the organization was committed to finding a solution to the many issues plaguing the S&WB, certain systemic obstacles remain.
"I don't disagree with what you're saying at all, this is unacceptable," said Rainwater. "Right now the best thing to do is instead of just case managers in the back office; the entire team will be activated to help fix the existing billing issues. Until we get some sort of systemic solution, that's the best we can do right now. We're moving as quickly as we possibly can, and we have two people here today that will be taking names and numbers to address billing discrepancies."
The S&WB is still operating under emergency conditions, according to the report. The system has been in a perpetual state of emergency for quite some time, and is still operating on an emergency basis almost daily, said Rainwater. The S&WB faced additional challenges resulting from emergency response preparations for Hurricanes Nate and Harvey, working 24/7 leading up to the event and throughout the after-action period.
Many of the pumping stations now have Wi-Fi and safety equipment, which did not previously exist. Rainwater said this made "absolutely no sense" in a 21st-century operation and attributed it to a lack of qualified leadership and management.
Rainwater cited the problems with billing and internal day-to-day struggles of S&WB employees as evidence of the inherent issues within the organization's leadership. As a result, the S&WB Board of Directors issued two Requests for Proposals (RFPs): one for an Executive Search Firm to help identify qualified personnel to fill senior level executive management positions, and one for 14 contract positions critical to operations with the goal of developing standard operating procedures and training programs critical for current and future staff.
"Historically, whenever there have been vacancies in these types of highly qualified, well-paying positions, the people of New Orleans aren't given an opportunity to fill those jobs," said District "D" Councilmember Brossett. "Hopefully this interagency team can change the culture around what's been going on not just at the S&WB, but within City government for decades."
The presentation provided updates on the two turbines currently out of service; both of which are receiving ongoing repairs and assessments. The team accrued five electro-motive diesel (EMD) generators to provide additional power and generation for the final months of hurricane season to stabilize the system and set it up for 2018.
District "A" Councilmember Susan Guidry inquired about the contractors currently working to repair pumps and turbines, some of which have been down for several months. She insisted that moving forward; there should be more accountability and performance assessments to determine whether or not they should be allowed to remain on the City's payroll.
Rainwater said there are currently checks in place to evaluate contractors, such as daily status meetings and reports to the board. However, given the current age of the pumps, which date back longer than most living people, he stressed that anyone who is selected to work on them is going to run into unforeseen complications. Rainwater also said his team has worked hard to create more transparency for residents to understand and remain up-to-date on what's happening with the drainage system. Currently, there are 112 out of 120 pumps operational (approximately 95 percent capacity). He said DPS #15, Pump 2 will return to service in mid-November as will DPS #6, Pump 1, which will bring the total system capacity to 98 percent.