Thursday, August 31, 2017

Who is going to throw them something?

Drainage project damaged my home

Signs like the one above were posted along Napoleon Avenue during Carnival this year. A few months later, they printed a similar format which claimed SELA had also "ruined my Jazzfest." That was confusing. Maybe the sight of a crack in the wall distracted these homeowners and made them sad as they watched the parades pass from their front porches.  Not sure that would "ruin" things for me but ok.  How it affected their Jazzfest is anybody's guess.

In any case, it's looking more and more like the mayor is going to have to throw them something after all.
The Sewerage & Water Board has lost its latest attempt to blame federal contractors for damage to homes along the Uptown New Orleans routes of several new underground drainage canals.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday (Aug. 28) that the Sewerage & Water Board couldn't hold liable federal contractors hired under the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Program, or SELA.

That leaves the embattled city agency staring down a possible $86 million payout to roughly 275 plaintiffs.

Appellate judges Thomas Reavley, Edward Prado and James Graves agreed with a lower court ruling that the Sewerage & Water Board had failed to prove the contractors hadn't followed federally agreed-upon plans when installing the canals.
We don't want to go too far in the direction of defending the Sewerage and Water Board, but it should be said they're in kind of a tight spot in this situation. SELA is a federal project overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps, though, is immune from litigation as are any contractors employed to do the work so long as the Corps signs off on the specs.  So, if you are an aggrieved property owner looking to get paid, you're going to have to get it out of S&WB.

But, uh... to put it lightly, they've got their own problems these days. And according to the mayor, at least, those problems are going to require a whole new source of revenue.
Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni said a new millage for drainage is a possibility, but there's also been a movement to create a more complex fee structure that would credit property owners for the amount of water-permeable property they have. Owners of properties that absorb rainfall would pay less than someone who generates more runoff. For example, a lot with a large lawn or another retaining features would face a lower fee than a parcel with an impermeable surface.

The Bureau of Governmental Research endorsed stormwater fees in a February report. It pointed out that while New Orleans is "one of the nation's most stormwater-challenged cities," it doesn't have a way to collect money directly from property owners who use its drainage system.
It's not clear what they're actually going to propose yet. One talking point they've run up the flagpole is the possibility that a new drainage fee could circumvent exemptions which keep nonprofits and religious organizations from paying property taxes. That's been a longstanding issue in municipal politics. Fittingly enough, though, it's one of those issues everybody complains about but nobody ever mitigates. You, know, like our regularly apocalyptic weather.

Anyway, it seems to me if broadening the tax base were really what they were after here, they'd attack that directly.  Most likely this is just another push to raise revenue via regressive fees instead of through property taxes. That's pretty much been the bread and butter policy choice throughout the Landrieu years especially. According to the somewhat unreliable BGR, they're going to need $54.5 million in new revenue over the next decade and it has to come from somewhere.

According to the also somewhat unreliable Inspector General, though, S&WB's problems go far beyond figuring out how to raise more money.
The current drainage crisis that has gripped the S&WB gave Quatrevaux another platform to bolster his case. In his letter, he listed a series of investigations his office has done in the past five years that he said exposes the shortcomings of the agency's management. They mainly focused on accounting weaknesses that may have made the agency vulnerable to fraud and abuse.

"The recent drainage failures demonstrate that an organization cannot perform poorly in finance and administration yet perform well in operations," Quatrevaux wrote.
I'm not sure what to make of some of Quatrevaux's arguments. I'm especially wary of the way he tends to point his finger at S&WB line employees and I have absolutely no truck with what I see in some of this as an attack on their pensions and benefits.  Having said that, he raises some troubling issues with regard to management practices; i.e. sloppy accounting, reliance on overtime in place of adequate staffing,etc. This passage makes the most critical point.
It is logical to consider how the many problems of the S&WB might be solved by organizational restructuring. From a theoretical view, there is a continuum from city control on one end to privatization at the other. But what is the S&WB now? It is not a city department but an independent entity that is legally impervious to city controls. The S&WB sits halfway down the continuum from city control to privatization, neither fish nor fowl.

The fundamental problem with the Sewerage & Water Board is that it is an institution impervious to change—it has ossified. Its celebrated independence permitted decades of technological progress to bypass the S&WB. Fees or millages increased when the inefficiencies could not be paid with current funds. The problem is structural, and the passing characters—mayors, directors, members of the S&WB—almost irrelevant.

A turnaround in such an organizational culture would be very difficult to achieve: the S&WB must be replaced with a modern organizational structure, one that makes elected officials responsible for the organization’s performance.
A similar argument was made by Jacques Morial a few weeks ago in this Lens op-ed. Morial agrees with Quatrevaux's recommendation to fold S&WB back into City Hall.  But while Quatrevaux's letter is focused on getting us to a more efficient management structure, Morial adds an appeal to more direct democracy. Morial pulls no punches in his piece.  He is especially critical of a recent structural reform backed by Landrieu and BGR.
The gist of SB 47 was to expel the City Council from the S&WB’s board of directors. For years, three members of the Council had been seated on that board. In their place, the bill established a system whereby directors would be appointed by the mayor from a list of nominees put forward by the presidents of local universities.

While all the men and women who have served in recent years as presidents of local universities are honorable, civic-minded leaders, their responsibility is to their institutions and their boards of trustees. These academic leaders are not accountable to the voters in any way, notwithstanding their noble service to the community and the vital role their institutions play in our city.

Leading the charge to purge the S&WB’s accountability to the voters was the august Bureau of Governmental Research, founded by social elites in 1930 as an anti-populist organization with a secret membership roster, not unlike the exclusive carnival krewes whose members comprised the group. But the BGR is neither representative, nor credible. Many of its board members do not live in New Orleans. Not a single African American serves on the BGR’s staff. Its board members have been awarded no-bid contracts with city agencies, and have been appointed by Landrieu to city boards or commissions. At least one of its officers has been embroiled in his own ugly conflict-of-interest scandal.
We aren't exactly sure what the new fee proposal will look like yet. But anything mayor pushes with heavy BGR backing is worthy of heavy scrutiny.  If Quatreveaux is to be believed, it's worth questioning just how steep such a measure really needs to be. Whatever the amount, I suspect we'll be looking at an attempt to impose a regressive fee based on a notional measure of drainage "usage" rather than a more progressive property millage.  After all, it would be shame if those Napoleon Avenue property owners went through all the trouble of making the mayor and S&WB "throw them something" only to find they were footing a fair portion of the bill themselves.  

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