Our Views: A practical cost of political delay

While there seems to be a lot of complexity to the issue of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board’s obligations, the bottom line is pretty simple: Unless customers’ bills increase, there won’t be enough money to fix New Orleans’ pipes.

That fundamental issue should not be sidelined because of some differences in the city’s leadership, and among civic activists, about changes in governance of the board and the pace of the rate increases required.

There is good reason to make some governance changes. Having three members of the City Council on the large existing S&WB governing body has inhibited the politically difficult process of raising rates to fix the pipes. A smaller body with shorter terms could be more effective, although no one who has looked at the issues — including citizens committees and officials, and the Bureau of Governmental Research — believes that savings could avert rate increases. A $3.3 billion problem requires new investments by customers.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has backed a set of proposed changes in the makeup of the board. If those proposals, or something similar, are approved by the Legislature and by charter amendment, the water board’s operations will probably see an improvement.

However, waiting on the long legislative — in other words, political — process may take up time that once again delays what are widely recognized as necessary rate increases. Those are painful, but the city simply cannot continue with leaking pipes and boil-water advisories.

Looming is a 2015 deadline under a pre-Katrina consent decree between the board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That agreement clearly requires an extension in light of the disaster of 2005 and the region’s struggles since.

But however much, and it may not be much, the EPA is impressed with governance changes at the water board, the real “earnest money” at the negotiating table will be rate increases, even if phased in over a period of a decade, as Landrieu had proposed.

Baton Rouge sewer fees have been raised considerably, but too late. For decade after decade, city officials balked at asking customers to pay for the most basic of city services, until hammered into compliance by EPA. New Orleans water and sewer customers should learn from that mistake.

Delays in investments in the city’s basic infrastructure should not be delayed, again.