Mayor Ray Nagin wants to focus his attention on building a concrete legacy -- literally and figuratively -- instead of just cleaning up the mess he inherited from former Mayor Marc Morial. He could accomplish both by rebuilding the Sewerage and Water Board (SWB).
The troubled agency performs some of the most crucial tasks that any local governmental entity can tackle: providing clean drinking water, treating and disposing of the city's raw sewage, and draining an average rainfall of nearly 65 inches a year from a city that sits below sea level. For decades, the agency performed exceedingly well. It still does an excellent job in many respects, but it's costing more and more to maintain consistent levels of high quality.
Specifically, the agency is under a federal mandate to upgrade its sewage collection system. The task is enormous and expensive, and it's been postponed so long that there's no more time to study it. Rates under the present system already have risen 38 percent in the last two years, and they're expected to more than double in the next five years. And that's just to pay for mandated sewerage improvements -- which doesn't include other needed upgrades to all the SWB's systems.
For example, water rates are projected to jump nearly 80 percent in the next five years for the system to keep pace with federal Clean Water Act guidelines.
Those kinds of price hikes get voters' attention. Those kinds of improvements offer lots of opportunities for people in power to reward their friends, which is what many suspect was behind Marc Morial's push to privatize water and sewerage operations before he left office. Independent groups such as the Bureau of Governmental Research roundly criticized the bid specifications put forth by Morial's SWB for the massive privatization contract. The SWB under Nagin -- but against his wishes -- narrowly rejected all bids and put things back to square one. Nagin was furious initially, but his foes on the board may actually have done him a favor.
Now he can start from scratch and do it right.
Beyond the blatant cronyism of the previous administration, the SWB needs a complete overhaul at the top. The old model served the city very well during most of the 20th century, but many believe it is outmoded and overly politicized today. Nagin certainly seems to believe that, and he hinted strongly at the SWB's last meeting that he intends to do something about it.
If the mayor is looking for a model that still works, he should consider the Dock Board. The state agency has a small board that oversees the city's port -- a major player in the local and regional economy. The Dock Board has been scandal-free and, by all accounts, very effective. When a vacancy occurs, prospective members are nominated by private-sector organizations and a list of three finalists is submitted to the governor, who must pick one name from the list. It doesn't take all the politics out, but it goes a long way.
Nagin and Councilman Eddie Sapir, who sits on the SWB, both like the idea of restructuring the board. They should consider adopting professional standards for membership on the board, not just that the person be out of jail and a friend of the mayor. Sapir even volunteered to go to Baton Rouge and testify in favor of legislation taking him off the board.
You don't often see politicians volunteering to surrender power. It's a sign of how badly things need to change. An improved SWB would be a fine place for Nagin to start building his legacy, and Sapir deserves credit for getting on board early.