Mitch Landrieu outlines city’s goals for upcoming legislative session

“I promised you that if you allowed us to increase those rates, I would not do that without making a major commitment to complete and total restructuring of the Sewerage & Water Board and management and operations of the Sewerage & Water Board.” Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Wednesday that his administration will ask state lawmakers during the upcoming legislative session to approve changes aimed at the Sewerage & Water Board, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court and the pension program for the New Orleans Fire Department.

Speaking at a meeting of the Bureau of Governmental Research, Landrieu said it has been too long since the city has worked to change any problems with those agencies.

“After decades of kicking the can down the road ... we reached a breaking point,” Landrieu said.

The mayor wants state lawmakers to approve a bill that would change the makeup of the S&WB’s Board of Directors.

He initially floated that idea as a way to help sell a customer rate hike that will see bills rise steadily until 2020. The $583 million that is expected to come from those increases will be used in part to fund a $3.3 billion rehabilitation of the agency’s aging water and sewer infrastructure.

Landrieu has said the S&WB is plagued by inefficient management and a new operating structure will help improve its operations.

The bill, by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, that will be considered during the session would reduce the board of directors from 13 to nine members, with City Council members who serve on it being removed.

The bill also would reduce term limits to four years, down from nine, and would limit members to two terms. Those who serve on the board also would be nominated by local university presidents and experts in their respective fields, Landrieu said.

“I promised you that if you allowed us to increase those rates, I would not do that without making a major commitment to complete and total restructuring of the Sewerage & Water Board and management and operations of the Sewerage & Water Board,” Landrieu said. “Our first priority this session is for the city of New Orleans to honor that commitment.”

Since the S&WB is a state political subdivision, only the Legislature can make those changes.

Landrieu also wants state lawmakers to allow a change in how the pension program for the city’s firefighters operates. The Legislature created the pension funds, meaning only its members can make changes to them.

Landrieu noted that firefighter pensions cost the city $50 million a year. Meanwhile, the pension system for firefighters, which is on shaky ground thanks to questionable investments, is 40 percent funded, he said.

“When they (the pension board) listen to some hack investment advisor who is under investigation by the SEC, it doesn’t cost them,” Landrieu said. “It costs you.”

A bill by state Rep. Kevin Pearson filed for the session would change the makeup of the pension board, bring it under local control and would see employee contributions to the fund rise from 6 percent to 10 percent.

“We know we can get this right,” Landrieu said, adding that the city already has made changes to other pension funds that have resulted in millions of dollars saved. But, he noted, firefighters have a powerful presence in Baton Rouge and that help would be needed to pass the bill.

The bill that would change how the firefighters’ pension fund operates would save the city about $2 million a year, Landrieu said.

Landrieu also said he will push to have the number of juvenile judges in Orleans Parish reduced from six to four, noting that studies have shown the size of the bench is too large for the case load the judges handle.

Landrieu surprised the judiciary with that news during a ground-breaking ceremony earlier this year for a new juvenile justice complex in Gentilly.

During that event, he announced that the new juvenile courthouse will have only four courtrooms. At that time he said he wanted only three juvenile court judges in New Orleans.

Four judges might still be too high, Landrieu said Wednesday, but would avoid political fights.

“I’m not trying to throw anybody out of office,” he said. “You’ve got to put politics aside. It’s the right thing to do.”

Since the state sets the number of judges in each parish, the Legislature must approve any reduction. State Rep. Helena Moreno authored the bill that would reduce the number of juvenile court judges.

Urging lawmakers to vote in favor of the proposed bills, Landrieu said that change must come for the city to advance.

“We have to be willing to step up to the plate ... or the city will continue to get what it’s gotten in the past,” Landrieu said.

The 2013 session begins at noon Monday and will end no later than 6 p.m. June 6.