What’s Up with the Amendments? A Close Look at Constitutional Amendment #4

This year there are eight constitutional amendments on the November 8 ballot. Some are a bit complicated, and all require a little homework before you cast your vote. To assist, we’re breaking the list into bite-size chunks. Leading up to the start of early voting on October 25, we will highlight one amendment every few days to give you the background and context you need to understand what they do. And for lagniappe, we offer CABL’s recommendations on each of them.   

Amendment #4   Allow Local Governments to Reduce Water Bills in Certain Circumstances

What It Does: Gives local governments that run water systems the flexibility to waive or reduce water charges that are the result of damage to the system that was not caused by the customer.

Background: The general rule of thumb is that if there is damage to a water line before it gets to your meter, it’s the responsibility of the water provider to deal with. If it’s on the other side of the meter, the responsibility lies with the property owner.

The author of this amendment described a situation where a constituent had a large leak in a water line running through a bayou on his property, but the damage to the line was caused by someone else, not the customer. He ended up with a large water bill and went to the local water district to try to have his bill reduced because, though the leak was on his property, it wasn’t his fault. What he found is the water district was prohibited from doing that.

That’s because of a longstanding clause in the constitution that generally prohibits state or local governments from loaning, pledging, or donating things of value to any person or company. The water is a thing of value that is purchased from the local government that provides the service, and that constitutional language was cited in an Attorney General’s opinion a number of years ago prohibiting local water boards from providing discounts or waiving fees for whatever reasons.

Supporters of this amendment brought up similar instances across the state, particularly in rural areas, where customers received water bills approaching $1,000 in a month because of damage to water lines running through their property. They also pointed to the 2016 floods which caused extensive damage to many water lines. In that instance, an Attorney General’s opinion based on an emergency statute provided customers some relief from what would have otherwise been huge water bills. But supporters of this amendment acknowledged that was a unique situation and a questionable opinion that likely would not have withstood a challenge in court. Hence this proposal to create an exception.

It should be noted, nothing prevents water boards from working out payment plans with customers to spread the costs out over a period of time, and that is currently the typical form of relief that is provided. This amendment goes much further giving local water boards the flexibility to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to reduce high water bills to customers because of damage to parts of the water system on their property that was not their fault.

Comments:  There are a number of things to consider here. One is that some private water companies apparently do provide assistance or relief for customers in similar circumstances. So do public water utilities in some other states. The Louisiana Municipal Association and the Louisiana Rural Water Association support this amendment saying circumstances like this arise on occasion following floods, hurricanes, and ice storms. And there are already a handful of exceptions to the constitutional provision this seeks to amend, mostly dealing with social service nonprofits and those that deal with blighted properties.

But passage of this amendment would seem to be creating a slippery slope. Whether we like it or not, customers do have a responsibility to maintain and protect the integrity of water and sewerage lines on their property. If the forecast says it’s not going to freeze so I don’t wrap my pipes, but there’s a hard freeze and they burst, should I get some relief? What if a washing machine hose bursts while I’m out of town and leaks water for three days?

Those scenarios might seem facetious, but they will be exactly the types of requests that come before water boards if customers know they can waive parts of their bill. And keep in mind, these are not businesses, they’re political bodies subject to political pressures which some worry could lead to instances of favoritism.

Another consideration is that many rural water systems across the state are not doing well financially. Many are struggling and barely surviving as it is. The product they are providing is water which they may not have to pay for, but delivering it to people’s homes requires electricity, labor, infrastructure that needs to be maintained, and chemical treatments to keep the water safe. There is a public cost involved in all of that.

CABL is sympathetic to the plight of individuals in these circumstances, but we fear passage of this amendment could open doors that are probably best left closed. If the problem is as widespread as some suggest, perhaps a more narrow and targeted solution would better serve both the public and individual interests.

CABL Recommendation: OPPOSE

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