By Calla Victoria
Unless you have been up at the North Pole helping Santa for the past year or so, you are well aware of the mounting problems at the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board. Everything began to unravel for the public utility during investigations after the August 5, 2017 flood that damaged many homes, cars, and business; had many motorists in a life and death situations as their cars flooded out, and left many New Orleans streets completely underwater and impassable.
The resulting investigations uncovered numerous maintenance problems including the fact that many pumps and turbines were offline and inoperable during the time of the heavy rains that caused the flood. As that damaging information came to light S &W B came under a federal audit concerning spending of FEMA-funded Public Assistance Grant in the tune of $1 billion that was earmarked for repairing machinery and infrastructure damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
Then, to add to the deluge of other problems facing Sewerage & Water Board, a plethora of customers began complaining to local media outlets of huge and inaccurate water bills. When those irregularities could not be explained away, officials at Sewerage & Water Board begrudgingly admitted that because of understaffing issues fostered by low salaries for meter readers and budgeting problems, many bills were mere estimates; while at the same time SWB was threatening to shut off customers water for non-payment. Coinciding with those mounting allegations and community unrest, top level Sewerage & Water Board officials were getting huge bonuses…which had frustrated New Orleans residents begging the question, “Bonuses for what…for jobs poorly done?” And for ALL of the aforementioned reasons there was a massive shake up in management at Sewerage & Water Board. The executive director and several high level officials were forced out and a new Executive Director, Ghassan Korban, was chosen to lead the troubled agency. Mr. Ghassan Korban has pledged transparency as well as community outreach programs to address customer complaints and billing issues.
The voters of New Orleans voiced their growing concerns and disapproval with the Sewerage & Water Board at the polls on December 8, 2018 by approving a City Charter change that would again place a city councilmember on the board at Sewerage and Water Board. As chairman of the City Council’s Public Works Committee, Councilman Joe Giarruso could chose to occupy the newly created seat on the Sewerage & Water Board or appoint a liaison. He chose the latter and appointed Councilman Jay H. Banks to represent the New Orleans City Council on the Sewerage and Water Board, and paired Banks with a knowledgeable engineer who advises the council on Entergy matters and will now provide input in Sewerage and Water Board matters as well.
When Councilman Jay H. Banks was asked why he was thought he was selected for the newly created city council seat on Sewerage and Water Board by the chairman of the City Council’s Public Works Committee his response was, “My mantra has always been that if the city is under water, we cannot get anything done.” Councilman Banks stated that from the beginning he has been very vocal and passionate about the problems with Sewerage & Water Board and that utility’s successful operation is fundamental and critical to him.
Of the many problems facing the Sewerage & Water Board Councilman Banks sees public image as S&WB’s biggest hurdle. “Something has to be done now in order for the public to once again begin the trust the utility. It makes no sense to allow the bad feelings to fester and grow. The billing issues are paramount and if we can get the billing situation straight that would go a long way towards restoring the citizens trust in Sewerage & Water Board,” Banks stated. This reporter asked Councilman Jay Banks what kinds of issues would the engineer assigned to him be advising on? Councilman Banks was very candid in his response, “Technical engineering a foreign language to me and I am not embarrassed to admit that. I am not an engineer and I don’t speak engineer, therefore the engineer will be my translator in many cases when technical terms are mentioned in board meetings that I don’t understand.“
Councilman Banks sees his role, in the newly created seat on S&WB, as being the eyes and ears of the City Council as well as the eyes and ears of every citizen of New Orleans. “At the end of the day we are all in the same boat, we all live in the city of New Orleans and we all have to pay a water bill,” were Councilman Jay H. Banks’ last words at the end to our interview.