NEW ORLEANS - Citing a lack of public trust in the Sewerage and Water Board's (S&WB's) billing system, the entire City Council on Friday asked the utility to reconsider its decision to reinstate normal collections, including shutoffs. The request comes after the S&WB agreed in a recent Public Works committee meeting that they lack the resources and capacity to ensure that all bills sent to customers are correct.
"It is premature at this point to even consider shutting people's water off. Of the over 17,000 delinquent accounts, there is no way to tell how many of those are incorrect and belong in the dispute process," said Councilmember Joe Giarrusso, who chairs the Council's Public Works committee and initiated the call for the S&WB to reverse course.
On July 12, the S&WB announced their plan to resume their normal collections process after having suspended collections in November 2017 due to widespread inaccuracies in customer bills. The S&WB defines a delinquent account as one that has carried a balance of over $50 for over 90 days. There is currently no way for a customer to determine if their delinquent account is in the formal dispute process.
"We understand that the S&WB has critical funding shortfalls and share the valid concern of increasing the agency's revenues...However, it is irresponsible to make the ratepayer the scapegoat," the Council stated in their letter to the S&WB. The Council continued, "Most importantly, we are concerned about poor customers who are receiving incorrect bills who then must jump through bureaucratic hoops unilaterally created by S&WB in an attempt to fix that bill."
The Council's letter highlights several improvements the S&WB should prioritize over shutoffs, which could improve the utility's financial outlook immediately. These improvements include eliminating the backlog of approximately 9,000 transfer accounts that have not yet received any bills for service; identifying which ratepayers are truly gaming the system by not paying their bills for a period of time; and scheduling in-person bill resolution sessions in each councilmanic district where customers can sit down with a S&WB customer service representative to resolve a billing dispute in real-time.
At the July 24 Public Works Committee meeting, the S&WB estimated that customers with unresolved delinquent bills could have their water shut off as early as mid-August.