City Council will decide on consulting contracts for advice on Entergy. For decades, the Utility, Cable, Telecommunications and Technology Committee of the New Orleans City Council has relied on a handful of primarily out-of-state contractors to provide technical advice and counsel on regulatory matters involving Entergy New Orleans. Different iterations of the Council have come and gone, yet the same familiar personalities have occupied the seats reserved for these contractors at committee and Council meetings.
At an annual sum of nearly $7M, the contracts of the Council’s utility advisors are the most lucrative that it awards. The firms that currently hold these contracts -- including Washington, D.C.-based law firm Dentons and Denver-based technical advisory firm Legend Consulting Group -- have done so for almost four decades, while New Orleans continues to battle high bills and unreliable service. Ideally, the utility advisors would lend a critical eye on the utility’s filings before the Council, but in recent years the advisors have supported Entergy’s unpopular and costly decisions, such as the construction of the gas plant in New Orleans East, which will cost New Orleanians upwards of $650 Million over 30 years. Meanwhile, advisors are free to contribute to the political campaigns of hopeful Council candidates, while their expenses are paid for by New Orleans ratepayers.
The advisor’s current contracts expire at the end of 2021 and will be opened for a Request for Qualifications this year, as they are every five years.
New Orleanians -- especially members of the Council -- should ask themselves: Have utility bills become more affordable in the past four decades? Has electric service become more reliable? What value are we receiving for the millions of ratepayer dollars spent each year? Do these firms have the vision necessary to lead our city past its reliance on fossil fuels? A fresh perspective on utility regulatory matters is overdue in New Orleans, and the Council should use the bidding process on these contracts to seriously consider a change.
Over the last few years, spurred by a report in The Lens on the political connections of these long-time advisors, the Council has begun to direct the build-up of their Council Utility Regulatory Office, the in-house staff that, until recently, acted in a purely administrative capacity, rather than as subject matter experts or legal counsel. The CURO office has grown since 2019 from two staff members to five full-time staff, with further plans for growth. This has the added bonus of keeping New Orleans ratepayers dollars here in the city, and building institutional knowledge in regulation and utility issues, including those involving the Sewerage and Water Board.
Another way the Council could re-think it’s relationship with regulation is to take a page from other utility regulators and contract with subject matter experts for specific issues. Rather than award blanket contracts for all regulatory dockets to the same few firms, the Council could award these contracts on a per-docket basis, which would create opportunities for local firms or those with specialized expertise and resources.