Councilman JP Morrell at a City Council meeting on Jan. 18 2023. Credit: Michael Isaac Stein/Verite

New Orleans City Councilman JP Morrell is calling for an investigation into the Sewerage and Water Board’s billing practices, saying after years of problems with the utility, customers are continuing to receive unusually high bills and few options to correct them.

In a Friday (Feb. 10) letter to the New Orleans Office of Inspector General, Morrell wrote that even after customers dispute their bills and are granted bill reductions by hearing officers, those adjustments aren’t being implemented by the Sewerage and Water Board and customers are continuing to receive erroneously high bills. And in an interview this week, Morrell told Verite that the Sewerage and Water Board is failing to inform customers that they can appeal bill-dispute decisions directly to the City Council. 

“We have had repeated public assurances by the Sewerage and Water Board that billing is not a problem, billing is fine, they’ve reformed the whole program,” Morrell said. “Those assurances have been proven to be hollow. We still have people on only a daily basis coming to us with new billing issues.”

Billing issues at the Sewerage and Water Board are nothing new. Widespread instances of inaccurate and skyrocketing bills have been well covered by the local media, and unreliable bills led the agency to temporarily stop service shutoffs for unpaid bills in 2017. The agency has implemented some changes, but issues have been frustratingly persistent. 

Former Louisiana state Rep. Emile “Peppi” Bruneau is among the New Orleans customers facing the issues Morrell raised. Bruneau said his normal water bills for a commercial property he owns range from $400 to $600 a month. But in October, he received a bill for roughly $1,700. The next month, he says he received a similarly sized bill.

“My bill quadrupled in October,” Bruneau told Verite.

He said he brought in a general contractor and paid $700 for a plumber to check for any leaks that would explain the issue. They didn’t find anything. So Bruneau appealed the bill to the Sewerage and Water Board. A hearing officer ruled in his favor and granted a bill reduction. 

According to Bruneau, the hearing officer also said his water meter, which was installed in 1970, should be replaced.

But when Bruneau opened his December Sewerage and Water Board bill, it said he still owed the original amount. The bill also included a late penalty for the previous bills he was disputing. He went back to the Sewerage and Water Board and pointed out the issue. His January bill was reduced by $2,482. 

The reduced bill still had a problem, though, Bruneau said. It still included a $349 late fee he was charged for not paying the disputed amounts — which isn’t allowed under city law. And he noted that the water meter was never replaced, making him wary of whether new bills continue to be higher than they should be. Bruneau is still fighting the Sewerage and Water Board to make those changes.

“Until the situation of the meter is resolved, the readings are going to continue to be incorrect,” Bruneau said in a January letter to the Sewerage and Water Board. 

Morrell said he’s talked to several customers with similar stories. 

Birch said the board “adheres to and enforces judgements issued by its hearing officers.” 

“We aim to adjust customer accounts as quickly as possible after a hearing. Sometimes, this happens within days. In other cases, especially with judgments that require a meter replacement, we need to collect one to two months of consumption readings with the new meter before we have the data to make the right adjustment.”

The Sewerage and Water Board noted that it is embarking on a smart metering project this year that aims to install new, more reliable and advanced meters for all customers. That project is scheduled to be completed in 2026. 

Morrell wasn’t satisfied with the utility’s responses.

“You can’t begin to fix a problem until you admit you have one,” Morrell said. “They will continue to claim there is no billing problem. That it doesn’t exist. And we’ve all seen there are tremendous examples including new ones that happen each day.”

The appeal process

Along with the ongoing billing problems, Morrell also said  that customers aren’t being informed about their ability to appeal Sewerage and Water Board hearing officer decisions to the City Council. The council recently gained authority to regulate Sewerage and Water Board billing practices due to state legislation passed last year

Using that authority, the council passed an ordinance last year to formalize the bill dispute process. First, a customer has to file a dispute with the Sewerage and Water Board, which will investigate and determine whether to grant a bill reduction. If the customer is unsatisfied with the investigation outcome, they can move to an administrative hearing to appeal.

If the customer still isn’t satisfied with the outcome of the administrative hearing, customers now have the ability to appeal the result again directly to the council.

“​​Even if it goes poorly, they have the ability to go to the council,” Morrell said. 

But customers aren’t being notified of that option, Morrell said.

In a statement, Sewerage and Water Board spokeswoman Grace Birch said the agency is willing to work with the council but did not directly address Morrell’s assertion that customers were not aware of all their appeal options.

“We will continue to work with the City to discuss the billing ordinance,” the statement said. “As the implementing agency, it is important to SWBNO that the final product of the collaboration can be effectively and legally delivered in practice. We will continue the conversation until all parties are confident that the proposed changes will improve our customers’ experiences.”

The council is still in the process of hiring its own hearing officer to handle any customer appeals that come in. Morrell hoped that in the meantime, the council would start accumulating a backlog of cases it could process once the hearing officer is hired. But few customers have requested council appeals, he said, perhaps because they don’t know it’s an option. 

Morrell said it was important to give customers the option immediately, even though there isn’t a hearing officer yet, because customers only have 45 days after the result of an administrative hearing to appeal to the City Council. 

“The fact that they’re not even telling people those appeals are possible, it seems like the culture of the Sewerage and Water Board to stick their head in the sand and to not address billing at all and hope that people will eventually pay because they’re so frustrated dealing with the process that they keep purposively obtuse,” Morrell said. 

Birch also pointed out that prior to the council billing ordinance last year, the previous dispute process already gave customers the option to appeal the results of administrative hearings in Orleans Parish Civil District Court. 

New Orleans Inspector General Ed Michel said he couldn’t comment on Morrell’s letter. His office announced last year that it was already looking into Sewerage and Water Board billing issues, but indicated at the time that the investigation was more about the Sewerage and Water Board’s inability to collect outstanding bills, including those owed by Sewerage and Water Board employees. 

Michel said that he planned to release a letter related to that investigation in the coming weeks, but could not detail what it would say. 

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Before joining Verite, Michael Isaac Stein spent five years as an investigative reporter at The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans news publication, covering local government, housing and labor issues. During...