New Orleans developer Anthony Marullo, owner of a large portfolio of residential and commercial properties, is suing the Sewerage and Water Board, alleging the utility reduced his credit rating and damaged his reputation over bills disputed water.
The lawsuit, filed in Orleans Civil District Court earlier this week, involves two multi-family apartment buildings in Central City, which together have 23 rental units.
Marullo alleges that after disputing bills totaling nearly $62,000 last year, the S&WB sent the disputed bills to its collections department without giving it notice. He also claims that he was never informed of the outcome of the dispute settlement procedure.
A long history of conflict
Marullo’s lawsuit highlighted growing frustrations among S&WB ratepayers over local utility billing systems, which recently sparked a bigger political tussle between Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the City Council.
At issue is a long history of disputed water bills as well as general questions about the utility’s finances and how it will pay for much-needed infrastructure upgrades.
The S&WB declined to comment on Marullo’s lawsuit, but said it hands over final invoices to a collection agency 30 days after their due date and does “every effort” to notify customers.
Water board executive director Ghassan Korban said last week that the utility had chosen a supplier for its $65 million project to replace its hand-read meters with new “smart meters” that will eventually help ease his billing problems. He said he hoped the project would start this year, but conceded it would take three years to complete.
Marullo declined to comment beyond the lawsuit’s allegations.
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Following Marullo’s $62,000 debt being placed in the water board’s collections department, the lawsuit claims Marullo’s score with rating agencies dropped from around 750 to around 500.
Credit scores – also called FICO scores – are compiled by three major rating agencies and affect a person’s ability to borrow money and the cost of borrowing.
Banks and other lending institutions are generally limited by regulations in terms of the loans they can give to people with bad credit. A FICO score above 740 is considered “very good”, while one below 579 is “poor” and would limit a person’s ability to borrow.
Marullo’s lawsuit claims the S&WB’s actions mean it is currently unable to secure financing for its property development projects. He also claims it has caused “irreparable damage to his reputation” and could affect his ability to remain on the board of directors of American Bank and Trust in Covington.
Application for injunction
Marullo, who is the third generation of the family that has owned the French Market Restaurant & Bar on Decatur Street since 1965, also owns multi-family housing with nearly 1,000 rental units in the greater New Orleans area.
It also has a portfolio of commercial properties, including the recently acquired Forum at 3131 Veterans Memorial Boulevard and Lakeside Plaza, a strip mall on 17th Street in Metairie.
Marullo’s lawsuit seeks an immediate injunction to order that the disputed bills be removed from the water board’s collection process; a hearing is scheduled for Friday. He also seeks unspecified damages and attorneys’ fees.