Once again the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board is in the news with another systemic failure: its engines are literally burning and SWB did not pay its federal payroll taxes causing the IRS to file a tax lien. This time lip service and piecemeal solutions will not get the agency out of hot water. The overarching problem is that there is not now, nor has there ever been, any legislative budgetary check over SWB. Fiscal oversight from the legislative branch (City Council) over the Executive (SWBO) is the “check and balance”, or power of the purse, that is a fundamental tenet of American democratic government.
After the catastrophic flooding of summer 2017, I issued a letter to the City Council and press release, and testified at a special hearing identifying this problem and calling for major governance reform that would have put the SWB on a path toward accountability.
Historically the Sewerage and Water Board had 13 members including three City Councilmembers. In 2013, Mayor Landrieu with the support of organizations like the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) pushed to remove the City Councilmembers to purportedly “de-politicalize” the Board. The legislature adopted BGR’s recommendations and passed legislation to remove the Councilmembers, shrink the size of the Board and provide limited reporting requirements to the Council. This had the effect of removing a critical check and balance from the SWB, which was left with no budgetaryoversight from the legislative branch. The SWB often failed to adhere to the reporting requirements, which was clarified and enhanced by an ordinance within the Council’s limited authority. However without the ability to demand budgetary data and approve budgets, there was little the Council could do.
In 2018, the legislature partially implemented my recommendations. One, not three, councilmembers was added back to the Board and some reporting requirements were enhanced. However, the State Legislature did not require that the Chair of the Public Works Committee be on the Board and did not give the Council any definitive budgetary oversight.
Until the City Council gets full budgetary oversight over the SWB, we will continue to see these systemic failures. Because the City Council spends so much of its time on land use and zoning and budgeting for all departments, putting SWB in theregular budget process may require expanding the size of the Council or its staff. The Chair of the Public Works Committee should be integrally involved with this process. Continuing to allow an executive agency (SWB) to function outside of the regular budget process has led to too many fiscal, operational and capital investment problems for decades. Everything else has failed. We need to go back to the basics, give the Council the power of the purse, and bring the SWB into the regular budget process.