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Mayor Cantrell rides the wave but crest still coming

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell listens as Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban answers questions from reporters. (Photo by Chris Granger, | The Times-Picayune)

The initial assessment of New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s success in steering much-needed financing to Sewerage & Water Board and infrastructure needs may come down to whether you view your catch basin as half-empty or half-full.

On one hand, Cantrell deserves credit for coming with a plan, sticking to her guns in the face of substantial resistance, bringing Gov. John Bel Edwards onboard and then personally lobbying lawmakers outside the city to support her proposal. Few thought she could pull it off, but she did.

On the other hand, there is still a cluster of procedural and electoral hurdles to clear and the need for yet more money to tackle all the long-term issues, not to mention a required faith that the Sewerage & Water Board is finally up to the task of keeping street-flooding and boil-water advisories to a minimum.

The biggest challenge is that Cantrell’s administration is trying to fix a system that has been left outdated, damaged and deteriorated after decades of neglect. The fact that the first $34 million collected will go to pay off contractors owed for emergency work from the August 2017 floods tells you how deep a hole we’re starting from.

This is just the beginning of a long and expensive process.

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The legislative package provides $50 million in one-time money and more than $20 million annually after higher taxes on hotels and a new property tax in the Downtown Development District are in place along with other changes and rededicated dollars.

The City Council still must sign off on various parts of the deal still along with agreements from local agencies and organizations, including the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. An advisory board to oversee the money also will have to give its approval. And city voters will have to approve a new tax on short-term rentals.

The recurring money likely will be split 75-25 between the Sewerage & Water Board and the city’s Department of Public Works.

Korban said the Sewerage & Water Board will eventually need more money beyond what the deal offers in order to strengthen underground electrical feeders that route power from the turbines to the pumping stations.

Public Works, which handles street repairs, catch-basin cleaning and some drainage pipe maintenance is looking to double its staff and increase the number of vacuum trucks from six to 12. That could reduce the time it takes to clean the city’s roughly 72,000 catch basins.

The money would also pay for two “pothole patcher” trucks, equipment the city has previously leased.

All of these changes could make life marginally better for New Orleans residents, but it's only scratching the surface. After a 114-year-old water main burst in May, flooding a neighborhood and triggering yet another boil-water advisory for parts of the city, the S&WB posted a map on its website showing just how ancient its infrastructure is.

The map and accompanying data revealed that almost half of the city's 1,500 miles of water pipes are at least 80 years old and a third are 100 years old or older.

Officials say the average life expectancy for a water main, depending on the material used, is between 75 and 100 years, meaning half of the New Orleans network has passed or is closing in on the expiration date.

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It's just the latest revelation of institutional indifference and neglect that leaves residents and property constantly vulnerable to deluges coming from above and geysers shooting up from below.

We hopefully are past the days when claims that pumps are working at “full capacity” actually mean they are working at the “capacity they had available to them,” but the Sewerage & Water Board still has a lot of work to do to regain confidence with customers.

In the meantime, most everyone expects the next heavy lift for the mayor to be a push for voter approval of a drainage fee on all properties in the city, including those owned by nonprofits, to raise another $40 million per year. Without that, Korban and his S&WB crews will just be playing whack-a-mole with the latest system failure.

So, yes, Mayor Cantrell scored a major victory in guiding her program past the landmines and through the Legislature. That is worth celebrating.

But even she knows that it's too early to schedule a parade. It might get rained on.

Tim Morris is a columnist on the Latitude team at | The Times-Picayune. Latitude is a place to share opinions about the challenges facing Louisiana. Follow @LatitudeNOLA on Facebook and Twitter. Write to Tim at [email protected].

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell listens as Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban answers questions from reporters. (Photo by Chris Granger, | The Times-Picayune) (Chris Granger/)

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Mayor Cantrell rides the wave but crest still coming


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