Louisiana voters to consider constitutional amendment on authority to waive water charges

Published: Nov. 4, 2022 at 7:12 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Michael Maxie strolled toward the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board office with a portfolio in his hand. It contained something he could not ignore.

“I got a $3,000 water bill right now,” said Maxie.

The bill showed more than $3,200 due. His previous bill was less than $100.

“My last water bill was $94,” said Maxie.

So, he headed to the agency to dispute the bill.

“They say that I have a leak but I have no leaks in my house, now you can even come with this camera and see that, you know, because all my pipes run through the ceiling, so if I had a leak the whole house would be full of water,” said Maxie.

Oliver Thomas is a New Orleans city councilman who hears about suspect bills a lot.

“We’re all familiar with those challenges. I never forget, one of my neighbors, right, had a dispute with Sewerage and Water Board about a bill attached to his property that started with a pipe in the public right away, you know, the leak wasn’t even on his property, the leak was on municipal property, the leak had something to do with the system,” said Thomas.

Water bill disputes are common and are not confined to New Orleans.

So, a proposed constitutional amendment to Louisiana’s constitution is on the Nov. 8 ballot.

It asks voters, “Do you support an amendment to allow local governments to waive water charges that are the result of damage to the water system not caused by the customer?”

Thomas reacted to the referendum.

“Anything we can do to take some of the burden and stress away from the ratepayers and away from the customers I think it’s a good thing,” he said.

Louisiana law generally prohibits state and local government agencies from loaning, pledging, or donating money, credit, property or things of value to a person or business. A prohibition that includes agencies and boards that oversee public water systems.

The Public Affairs Research Council, a non-profit, puts explanations of constitutional amendments on its website. And it also showcased arguments for and against the proposed changes to the constitution.

The argument for Constitutional Amendment 4: Water system administrators should have flexibility to help customers if bills were improperly increased by damage out of the control of a customer, such as infrastructure problems caused during an ice storm, flood or other disaster. Many other states offer that flexibility to their water utilities. The waivers are permissive, not required.

The argument against Constitution Amendment 4: Allowing widespread waivers of customer charges undermines system sustainability, taking away much-needed money from systems already struggling with outdated infrastructure. Changing the prohibition makes system administrators more vulnerable to outside political pressure. Water system administrators can offer payment plans to deal with hefty charges.

Often it is the responsibility of property owners to prove the problem with the water system infrastructure is not on their property.

“I saw one the other day that was $20,000, right? And the onus is on them to then hire a master plumber or do an inspection of their system when the leak is in front of their property which is crazy, right?”

The S&WB in New Orleans says it has existing policies relating to waiving water charges that are not caused by the customer as well as if there is a leak on the property.

The agency provided the following information about its policies.

  • A leak on your property – A customer is responsible to have the leak repaired. They must notify us in writing with proof of the repairs. Proof consists of a statement of work by a licensed plumber or a signed letter from you stating the extent of the repairs completed with copies of any receipts for supplies.
  • After SWBNO receives a meter reading that indicates a customer’s water usage has returned to normal, we will adjust 50% of the excess sewer fees and 50% of the excess water fees for leaks that occurred above ground, such as leaking fixtures. We will adjust 100% of the excess sewer fees and 50% of the excess water fees for leaks that occurred in underground pipes. Normal usage is considered the average of the two most recent actual meter reads before the leak occurred. Excess sewer and water usage is considered water and sewer used above that of your normal usage.
  • A leak that was the responsibility of SWNBO – We will remove 100% of the excess sewer fees and 100% of the excess sewer fees from your bill.
  • An unexplained high bill - When there is no clear cause of the high bill and the following month’s water use returns to normal, SWBNO can make a once-per-year adjustment of your water consumption to match your account’s last actual meter reading that is similar to your account’s normal water use. If your water use on subsequent bills continues to be high, you will be notified that you should check your property for leaks. No adjustment will be made in this case.

Further, it says customers who are not satisfied with bill adjustments or result of bill investigations may request a hearing before an administrative hearing officer.

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