The Sewerage and Water Board isn’t enforcing two pieces of a law passed by the New Orleans City Council last year to regulate the agency’s billing practices, officials said on Wednesday (March 15).

The first unenforced provision prohibits the agency from trying to collect old bills if it has repeatedly failed to send those bills to customers. The second requires the agency to inspect the water meter when a customer’s bill rises at least 20% from one month to the next. 

Sewerage and Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban said those issues would be discussed further at a meeting on March 30. 

Wednesday’s meeting is a continuation of a long debate over chronic billing issues at the Sewerage and Water Board. For years, customers have reported inaccurate and outrageously high bills. The agency has also at times failed to send monthly bills to some customers, then slapped them with a high bill to cover the previously missed months. 

“I’ve never not acknowledged that billing is the No. 1 issue for us,” Korban said. “I will continue to address it until it’s solved.”

“​​I appreciate that today more than previously you’re acknowledging that billing is still an issue,” Councilman JP Morrell said. “But it still troubles me.”

The City Council has gotten more involved in the issue in recent months following the passage of state legislation that gave the council regulatory authority over Sewerage and Water Board billing practices. The council used that authority in December to pass an ordinance laying out new rules for customers to dispute their bills.

Getting billing under control also appears to be a central issue with the expectation that the agency will ask the council for rate hikes at some point. The agency, with the backing of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, considered asking for a rate increase last year. But the City Council, which has final say over the rates, unanimously objected to the proposal, in part due to the ongoing problems with billing.

As Morrell said on Wednesday, he still expects the agency to come back to ask for a rate hike eventually.

Morrell last month wrote a letter to the city’s inspector general saying that the Sewerage and Water Board was failing to follow the new law passed by the council last year and calling for an independent investigation. 

The inspector general released a letter soon after saying the agency needed to improve its billing accuracy and collection rates before asking for higher bills. 

‘It’s not fair at all’

On Wednesday, Korban said that the agency was complying with four of the six major rule changes made by the council’s ordinance last year. That included the two rules that Morrell said last month were not being followed: implementing the rulings of customer bill dispute hearings and informing customers of their ability to appeal their bill directly to the City Council if they’re unsatisfied with the decision from Sewerage and Water Board.

Of the parts of the law the agency isn’t following, Korban said on Wednesday that the rule against collecting from customers who haven’t been billed in months was too punitive, and that there were complications in implementing it because Sewerage and Water Board bills also include fees that are dedicated to two outside government agencies: the state and the city’s Department of Sanitation.

“​​It’s not only punitive to us, it’s punitive to two other agencies we collect money for on their behalf,” Korban said. “I don’t believe we are able to deliver on that without further conversation.”

Councilmembers argued, however, that it can be a real problem for customers when they don’t receive regular bills and then suddenly receive a bill for months of back payments. 

“The customer then has to bear the burden of those bills that are delayed,” Councilman Joe Giarrusso said. “If your bill is supposed to be $100 a month and then you get something that’s been delayed for three or four months. Instead of a $100 bill you have a $300 bill or a $400 bill. That’s not fair.”

He also added that the rule would ideally incentivize the agency to actually send out bills in a timely manner. 

Korban said that the agency should never be sending a late bill and it is indeed unfair to the customer when it happens.

“It’s not fair at all,” Korban said. “By no means do I think delaying a bill is acceptable to us.”

But he said that it would be bad for the agency as a whole for it to forfeit all of those delayed bills. And he noted that the Sewerage and Water Board works with customers who receive late bills to help spread the cost over time so they aren’t on the hook all at once. 

“​​We understand it’s not ideal, but we also try to do right by them for doing wrong by them in the first place,” Korban said. 

As for the law on dealing with 20% increases from month to month, Korban said they happen all the time, and often not because the meter is broken. He said the agency simply doesn’t have the staff to follow through.

“The way it’s written right now it’s just too broad and burdensome,” Korban said. “​​​​To require us to go visit every meter … No. 1, I don’t think we have the capacity to do it. It will add a burden and cost that may not be needed.”

Morrell asked Korban to name what percent increase from month to month would be more appropriate to trigger a meter inspection.

“If 20% is arbitrary, than what should that number be?” Morrell asked.

Korban said he would bring a suggestion to the March 30 meeting when these issues will be discussed further. 

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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...