City to act on request to cut water at homes with delinquent garbage bills
A year after Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked the New Orleans City Council to allow the Sewerage & Water Board to cut off water service to customers who don’t pay their monthly fees for garbage pickup, it appears the council is ready to act.
The indication came Wednesday as the council opened three weeks of hearings on the mayor’s proposed 2014 operating budget.
The budget assumes the city will collect almost $1.3 million next year because of the added pressure the new policy would put on residents to pay the sanitation fee, which covers most of the cost of paying three private companies to collect trash across the city.
The water board cuts off water to properties that don’t pay the board for water and sewerage services, but not to those that fail to pay only the city’s sanitation fee, which is tacked onto the water bills.
The city has a policy of collecting garbage even if customers don’t pay their bills, to prevent trash from piling up on the streets and because it is difficult to tell who placed what trash out for collection.
The fee amounts to $24 a month per household or $48 a month for a small business eligible for city trash collection.
Restaurants and bars, other businesses that generate large amounts of trash, and residential properties with five or more units are supposed to pay for private trash pickup and so are not supposed to be charged the fee.
Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux issued a report in July saying that more than one third of New Orleanians are delinquent on paying the sanitation fee, and that the city’s ineffective system for collecting the money is costing City Hall millions of dollars a year.
He said $8.5 million, or more than 20 percent of the total owed to the city, went uncollected in 2011.
Councilwoman Stacy Head said Wednesday she thinks the council doesn’t have to pass an ordinance to let the water board change its policy.
She said state law authorizes the mayor and the board to sign an agreement letting the board shut off water to customers who don’t pay the fee.
Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said attorneys for the city and the water board disagree with Head.
In any case, the council would need to approve a cooperative endeavor agreement covering more than one year, so its acquiescence appears to be necessary one way or the other.
Council President Jackie Clarkson said most council members agreed months ago to support the mayor’s proposal, although longtime community activist Eloise Williams complained about the effect it would have on poor residents.
Also Wednesday, as the council discussed next year’s projected $504.3 million revenue budget, Head renewed her annual attack on the amount of property tax the city will collect.
She said the $115 million forecast for 2014 is about $40 million more than the city raised in property tax in 2005, before Hurricane Katrina, even though New Orleans’ population is now considerably smaller and many houses and businesses have yet to be renovated or put back into commerce, meaning they are paying little if any tax.
“I firmly believe there is an overburdening of taxation on a smaller number of people,” said Head, who has consistently presented that argument each year, sometimes proposing to reduce the city’s millage rate, though she rarely gains much support from her colleagues.
On Wednesday, administration officials and other council members said the principal reason for the rise in property tax revenue is the change in 2011 to a single citywide assessor, leading to what they said are fairer and more realistic assessments for thousands of properties.
Probably the day’s best news came from Chief Financial Officer Norman Foster, who said despite the financial challenges facing the city, a five-year forecast shows revenue growing fast enough that by 2018 the city could have built up a $60 million fund balance, or cumulative surplus, in sharp contrast to the $20 million deficit it had at the end of 2012.
That deficit is supposed to be cut to $4.5 million by the end of this year and to become a $4.3 million surplus by the end of 2014, unless the city must spend millions on unbudgeted but court-ordered expenses such as improving conditions at Orleans Parish Prison or paying overdue contributions to the firefighters’ pension fund.
The council was told that even though revenue from the city’s traffic cameras has fallen from $17.3 million in 2011 to $11.1 million this year, the number is expected to climb to $12 million next year as the city addresses a number of what officials called “technical challenges” with the cameras.
The 2014 revenue forecast includes an expected $1 million contribution to the general fund from the French Market Corp., but Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, a member of the French Market board, warned that the agency could face additional expenses next year if it takes over management of the new riverfront park in Faubourg Marigny and Bywater.
She said, however, that she thinks the market could triple its revenue if its management were “thoroughly reformed.”