Bid to contract out Sewerage & Water Board employees positions hits snag

A move to temporarily contract out some key Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans staff positions hit a snag Thursday (Dec. 14) when officials shot down the only company to put forth a proposal for a “staff augmentation” contract that critics say looks like an attempt to privately manage the public utility.

In a statement emailed Thursday night, the S&WB framed the now-imperiled contract as a stopgap means to bolster the Sewerage and Water Board’s roster of technical experts, managers and workers following widespread summer floods. The S&WB said it’s trying to fill more than 300 staffing vacancies, the vast majority of which the agency said would be approved by the city’s Civil Service Commission.

But Sewerage and Water Board leaders have long argued the issue of understaffing is compounded by what they consider tight hiring rules under the civil service system. Earlier this year, the S&WB sought – but failed – to exit the civil service system through changes to state law.

Then, in August, shortly after the flooding that revealed severe deficiencies in the city’s drainage system, the utility’s board of directors was notified that 290 positions were vacant, with another 240 employees eligible for retirement. More recently, the firm Black & Veatch released a report in October that specifically pinned drainage failures during the Aug. 5 flooding on pumps being down for repairs “or not operating due to limited staffing availability.”

That report also took stock of the agency’s overall staff makeup, finding that nearly one-fourth of the 781 employees on the Sewerage and Water Board’s payroll are eligible for retirement – including almost 30 percent in the agency’s sewerage and drainage divisions.

“Most departments have staffing issues related to being inadequately staffed to fulfill the current needs of the (Sewerage & Water Board),” the report states.

According to an Oct. 23 request for proposals, the Sewerage and Water Board solicited firms to provide “staff augmentation, support services and training” for positions throughout the agency via a contract. Along with setting up a training program, the contract – termed for one year but with a three-year extension option – would also oblige the chosen contractor to fill at least 14 technical positions ranging from engineer managers to a turbine generator operator.

Those 14 positions, the Sewerage and Water Board said Wednesday, would be phased out once filled through the civil service commission after the contract expired.

But the search for a firm looked bleak from the start, given only one company submitted a proposal for the contract before the Nov. 6 solicitation deadline. That’s despite an Oct. 27 pre-proposal meeting that drew representatives from around three dozen contracting and consulting firms, according to signatures on a sign-in sheet for that meeting.

On Thursday, a selection committee of Sewerage and Water Board officials nixed the firm that sent in the lone proposal,…

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