Officials clash over rate hike proposal

City Council President Stacy Head and other City Hall officials are at odds with one another about the timing of a vote scheduled for Thursday on proposed Sewerage & Water Board rate increases.

Head, who wants to defer the vote so at least one more public meeting can be held, said that Mayor Mitch Landrieu is trying to move the increases through too soon, leaving little time for public discussion. Ryan Berni, the mayor’s spokesman, countered that the time to make the changes has arrived since the plan has been in the works for two years with many public meetings in that time. Additionally, he said, any capital improvements have been deferred too long already.

If approved, the rate increases would take effect next month and would essentially double the amount most people pay now.

The S&WB is looking to raise revenues by raising rates during the next eight years as it prepares to begin a $3.3 billion rehabilitation of its aging infrastructure and tries to repair its finances.

If the new rates are approved, the average residential water and sewer bill would increase by 10 percent a year, from $52.50 now to $86.36 in 2016. The nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research has estimated that bills could increase by 136 percent in 2020, generating $582.6 million for the agency after the increases have taken effect.

Costs will only continue to rise, Berni said, and the city has deadlines to meet for a years-old consent decree involving the sewer system. “Delays and politics is what got us into this situation in the first place,” he said.

A S&WB spokesman did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

The council three weeks ago introduced ordinances for the proposed increases, a day after the S&WB’s executive board voted to approve them. Thursday will be the firs time they can legally be acted upon. Ultimately the City Council, which has oversight of the agency, must approve any rate increases.

Head said that she’s not against raising S&WB rates, noting that she voted for an increase in 2007, but said that rate increases of this magnitude should be studied more closely. That’s been hard to do, she said, since the plan has been fluid and since she has yet to get some information about spending that she’s requested from officials.

“If I don’t have all the information I’m not sure the public does or my colleagues do,” she said.

Gauging how the council members might react to the request to defer the vote was difficult to determine Tuesday since some said they were still researching the matter, while others didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson, who wants to vote on the issue this week, was not available for comment on Tuesday. Her spokeswoman said Clarkson would issue a statement on the issue Wednesday morning, the same day a special meeting of the council’s budget committee has been called to discuss the matter. That meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. in the council chambers.

Councilwoman Kristin Palmer said that the process to vote on the proposed ordinances has been followed properly following dozens of public meetings about the issue. She said she agrees the time to make a decision is now.

“I will take action on Thursday if we have to take action on Thursday,” she said. “It’ll be a tough decision.”

Councilwoman Susan Guidry said through her chief of staff that she is looking into the matter but was not ready on Tuesday to comment.

Councilman Ernest Charbonnet said he, too, was studying the issue before deciding how to vote. “On one hand I see the need to repair our infrastructure. On the other hand, I’d hate to move forward without it (the proposed rate increases) being properly vetted,” he said. “I’m deliberating. I do see her (Head’s) point.”

Council members Diana Bajoie and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell did not return messages seeking comment.

Ultimately, Head said, she’s not necessarily against the proposed increases, saying that she just doesn’t think trying to force the vote through in between the end of budget hearings and the holidays is the best idea.

“I don’t think we should put an arbitrary deadline on something of this magnitude,” she said. “I’ve never seen a matter that wasn’t deferred” when requested.