More questions than answers as S&WB reports to the City Council

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NEW ORLEANS -- The troubled New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board was on the hot seat again Thursday, grilled by the City Council over a wide range of problems, but delivering few answers.

Representatives of the utility were on hand to deliver a quarterly report that was supposed to be submitted last week. The report barely addressed any of the urgent questions that have lingered since rainstorms flooded the city over the summer, even at more than 400 pages.

Those questions ranged from the persistent billing mistakes reported by property owners to millions of dollars for infrastructure repairs that have either gone unspent or haven’t fixed the problem.

“I'm too frustrated with the lack of answers, the lack of real answers, from the Sewerage and Water Board,” Council Member Jared Brossett said. “This report that was presented just a little while ago doesn't do justice for me, nor my constituents.”

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Several council members raised the most common complaint they hear from constituents: billing errors. Homeowners and businesses across the city have complained about getting astronomical bills far out of line from their typical monthly usage.

“Where are the policies and procedures written and where can a person find them regarding billing complaints or billing disputes?” Council Member Stacy Head asked. “Because I need to refer people to that. A lot.”

WWL-TV’s special investigation, Down the Drain, uncovered millions in taxpayer dollars used to try and repair ancient equipment that still isn't fixed. One big finding was that the money spent on unsuccessful repairs to power-generating Turbine 4 – more than $31 million – has now topped the price tag of buying a brand-new turbine.

“What is the explanation of continuing going down the same path of repairing a 100-year-old system and money going down the drain besides replacing it?” Brossett asked.

While there were plenty of questions for the embattled agency, there were hardly any answers.

“I absolutely understand your question. Again. It's not a question I'm in a position to answer,” said attorney Jade Brown Russell, a newly appointed member of the agency’s interim management team.

Brown and Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni admitted that the absence of a permanent leadership team makes it difficult to address long-term problems or provide detailed answers.

Most of the Sewerage and Water Board’s leadership forced out after this summer's floods, including then-Executive Director Cedric Grant and Superintendent Joseph Becker.

While council members expressed understanding that the interim managers were in a difficult position, they demanded that future meetings include engineers or other technical experts who can address the council’s lingering questions.

“People don't know what's going on and there's zero trust in the community. And I really don't have it either,” said Council Member and Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell.

Berni, assigned to work with the Sewerage and Water Board until permanent managers are hired, revealed that a new interim director would be named next week. That person would replace the current interim director Paul Rainwater, who is leaving at the end of December.