The New Orleans City Council this week will consider a proposed rate increase for the Sewerage and Water Board (S&WB). The rate increase is part of a larger, comprehensive plan to get the S&WB on track to comply with a sweeping federal consent decree that predates Hurricane Katrina. The proposal before the council is Mayor Mitch Landrieu's scaled-down version of a significantly larger rate hike initially suggested by the S&WB, and it represents the first of several steps toward modernizing the board. The mayor's plan is supported by the Business Council of New Orleans and the Citizen Sewer, Water & Drainage Management Task Force. We add our voice to those supporting the proposed changes.
The plan that Landrieu is asking the council to approve includes 10 percent annual rate hikes in water and sewerage fees starting in 2013 — and continuing through 2020. While those are significant hikes, the S&WB initially proposed larger rate increases over a shorter period of time. Landrieu says one of his goals in reshaping the rate structure was to soften the impact of the increases, a move we think makes sense.
In addition to addressing rates — which must go up to pay for improvements mandated by the federal government — the mayor also suggests some changes in the makeup of the S&WB itself. Specifically, he wants to shorten terms of appointed members, take council members off the board, and impose term limits. Some of his proposals require legislative approval, and it's significant that most local lawmakers support Landrieu's recommendations. Council members also support taking themselves off the board.
We recognize that elected officials are loath to increase fees for governmental services. Sometimes, however, it's unavoidable. This is one of those times. The city's sewerage and water systems were already in horrible shape before Hurricane Katrina; now they're even worse.
There's no getting around the need for a rate hike, and there's likewise no excuse for postponing this decision — or politicizing it before the next round of citywide elections. The council should bite this bullet and act this week to approve the new S&WB rate structure.