NEW ORLEANS - Thousands of billing irregularities forced the Sewerage & Water Board to stop its practice of shutting off water to delinquent customers last fall.
But the beleaguered agency says it’s ready to get aggressive again collecting $13.5 million in delinquent bills. Responding to a request from the City Council, it released a list of its 25 largest past-due accounts, totaling more than $3.1 million.
“Now that we have identified the issues and are implementing solutions, we are in the planning stages of resuming water shut-offs,” S&WB spokeswoman D’Seante Parks said. “We encourage customers to pay their balances.”
But after reviewing several of the largest past-due accounts, WWL-TV found all but a few remain in dispute and appear to be plagued by some of the same systemic issues that have helped create a backlog of 7,000 files under investigation.
That worries City Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who is leading the new council’s charge to solve persistent billing problems at the S&WB.
“One of the things I'm worried about is, if you have these massive bills that are wrong and you're saying we're owed this much money and that is incorrect, that is revenue you're never gonna get back,” Giarrusso said.
Three of the largest past-due bills belong to companies owned by Joshua Bruno, a developer with apartment complexes in 18 cities, 15 states and two countries.
He owns the Oakmont Apartments in Algiers, a 336-unit complex that houses thousands of residents and has a past-due bill for almost $248,000.
He also owns the Cypress Park Apartments II and Forest Park Apartments, also in Algiers, which the S&WB say owe a combined $198,000. Despite Bruno’s efforts to dispute the amounts, the utility claims the Oakmont bill is no longer under investigation.
Bruno says it’s a constant battle with the S&WB that’s lasted years, through multiple hearings on each of his properties. He said even decisions in his favor haven’t always led to proper adjustments to the bill. It means he doesn’t trust the process and wonders if it can be fixed for the long haul.
“What we basically have done is now put cameras on our water meters, where now, when we do have an investigation, we know if they actually get out of the truck and do something,” Bruno said. “Because 9 times out of 10 we found that they weren’t.”
Last October, residents in the Oakmont Apartments were left without water due to a broken meter that flooded the surrounding street for months.
“I couldn't take a bath, I couldn't wake up and brush my teeth. I have stuff in the toilet. You know it's really frustrating,” Oakmont resident Shannon Spotsville told WWL-TV at the time.
Since then, Bruno’s account for the complex has been charged for using a paltry 5,000 gallons of water some months, nearly 5 million gallons the next. Finally, after WWL-TV requested information about the account, the utility conceded there was an “over reading” of Oakmont’s meter.
But that only solved about 10 percent of the overbilling, Bruno says. The S&WB also insists that the complex pay about $8,000 a month in sanitation fees, as if there were 336 individual garbage cans for each unit. No such garbage service exists and isn’t even allowed for large commercial properties by city ordinance.
Bruno pays a private company for dumpster service instead.
“Ninety percent of our bills sometimes are sanitation when we have private trash service,” Bruno said.
Parks, the S&WB spokeswoman, said that’s because Bruno failed to “request a hearing via fax,” and didn’t file an annual application to be exempt from sanitation fees. Bruno says that’s ridiculous.
“This is a 336-unit building,” he said incredulously. “They can’t even service this property if I wanted them too! Where are my 336 cans? When have they ever serviced this property?”
While staggering, Bruno’s account is not unique. It’s one of 23,000 listed as delinquent by the S&WB.
Westbank Holdings LLC, Bruno’s account for the Oakmont complex, is behind Xavier University, the University of New Orleans and Triangle Real Estate at the top of the S&WB’s list.
Xavier University officials said the school’s bill for $413,000 is related to past issues with the underground plumbing system.
“Xavier has been working closely with SWBNO to resolve the billing issue and has honored payment arrangements agreed to by both organizations,” said Patrice Bell Mercadel, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for the university.
Officials from UNO said the public university has been disputing several of its 16 sewer and water bills for the last 15 months, including one that’s normally $20,000 a month or less, but suddenly came in more than six times higher, at $133,000.
Triangle Real Estate’s $273,000 bill shows it’s also still under investigation, even though the North Carolina company sold all its New Orleans properties in December.
Like Westbank Holdings, NASA’s Michoud facility and developer Wade Verges are marked as outright delinquent – meaning not under dispute according to the S&WB.
NASA’s bill stems from a missed registration deadline for the city to receive payment from the federal agency, according to NASA spokeswoman Jennifer Stanfield. The bill was 30 days past due and was set to be paid in full Friday, July 6, Stanfield said.
Verges, on the other hand, said he’s waiting on an answer from the S&WB for a $96,000 bill that showed no water usage for the sprinkler system at a shopping center he owns in New Orleans East. The majority of the bill is for sewer use fees typically tied to the amount of water used.
“God only knows why you have a sewer charge associated with a sprinkler system,” Verges said.
As for Bruno, he said installing cameras in aging water meters and requesting hearings is not enough to settle his accounts.
“We’re in 15 states now and no utility company we dealt with, even out of the country, has had so many issues,” Bruno said.
Sean Brennan contributed to this report.