Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration says improvements are needed — some are already underway — at the Sewerage & Water Board, but there’s no reason to suspect malfeasance among current S&WB leadership.
Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux sent a letter to Landrieu July 31, recommending the S&WB not be trusted with administering money from proposed rate hikes. In his letter to Landrieu, Quatrevaux said the S&WB is
"the most likely of the City’s component entities to engage in fraud, waste, and abuse according to standard risk assessment technology."
The intent of the IG's letter is to develop legislation requiring intense scrutiny of the board’s money management — by the OIG or another entity — and/or to move the operation into City Hall where it would fall under the city’s procurement policies.
Quatrevaux pointed to problems in the S&WB pension plan that could make it unsustainable, waste and possible fraud in employee insurance programs and abuse of the take-home car program (one of every seven S&WB employees has a take-home car), and the conviction of former S&WB director Benjamin Edwards on charges he took kickbacks from S&WB contractors during the 20 years he headed the department.
In a statement emailed to Gambit, Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni says the mayor “will take a hard look at the Inspector General’s recommendations” but defended the current S&WB leadership.
The administration has been working with the S&WB to improve the deficient areas and improve overall operations, Berni says, and will continue to do so. However, the statement said,
"any suggestion of impropriety by the current executive director would be baseless. Marcia St. Martin has played by the rules and has been a dedicated public servant for over 40 years."
“ We have made significant progress in improving the operations and funding of the Sewerage and Water Board in our more than 2 years in office, but we must do more. It is clear to us that the S&WB currently does not have what it needs in terms of infrastructure and funding to serve a 21st century American city. It is the Mayor’s hope that with key reforms and improvements identified and outstanding questions answered within the next 60 days, we can find consensus on a pathway forward."
The S&WB has scheduled public meetings to disseminate information and receive input from ratepayers about increases of 14 percent for water service and 15 percent for sewerage every July through 2016. The board says the hikes are necessary because revenues have been lower than needed to operate, repair and update water, sewerage and drainage systems since the 1980s in most areas of the city. The mayor sent a letter to the board on July 17 asking it to find ways to lower the rate increases. He requested a reply within 60 days.
The fact that the S&WB needs a heavy influx of funds to repair and revamp the city’s antiquated system is not in dispute by Quatrevaux or the mayor’s office. “It is clear to us that the S&WB currently does not have what it needs in terms of infrastructure and funding to serve a 21st century American city,” Berni says. “It is the Mayor’s hope that with key reforms and improvements identified and outstanding questions answered within the next 60 days, we can find consensus on a pathway forward.”