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Proposition Y gives choice of how to fund vital MSD project

ST. LOUIS – The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District is offering city and county voters two choices in the April 6 election, but neither one involves saving money.

In the first option, voters can approve a $500 million bond issue to partially fund $1.58 billion in system improvements, and see their average monthly wastewater bills increase from $56.40 to $62.59 through 2024. That’s slightly more than average customers pay.

In the second option, they can reject the bond issue, pay cash, and watch their average monthly bill zoom from $56.40 to $86.12 through 2024 . But because they’re not paying interest, they’ll pay less in the long run.

The choice in the Proposition Y bond issue is the result of an agreement reached in 2012 by MSD, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment requiring the MSD to fix major sewer problems across the St. Louis region.

Brian Hoelscher, MSD’s executive director and CEO, said decrees reached with about 200 other entities throughout the country called for them to be in complete compliance with the Clean Water Act by 2039.

“What we do is, we come back every four years and ask the public whether they would like us to fund the next four-year program just with rates, or if they’d like to give us additional bonding authority to be able to borrow money for part of the program,” Hoelscher said. 

“It’s not a decision about whether or not to do the work. That’s been decided in court,” Hoelscher said. Instead, the district wants to get the public’s opinion about how the program should be funded four years from now, he said. 

In every election so far, 65 to 75 percent of voters favored the bond issue, Hoelscher said.

Hoelscher also said MSD recently borrowed $120 million at the low interest rate of 2.75 percent. It’s eligible to borrow in a federally subsidized program through the state for less than 1 percent.

“It’s not free money, but it is awfully good-looking money to be able to borrow money for that low interest rate,” he said.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there were more than 850 places in the MSD system where wastewater and stormwater went through the system together.

“That was causing the sewers to overflow into people’s basements,” Hoelscher said. 

The number of those places is now down to fewer than 100. MSD is supposed to get that number down to 33 by the end of 2023. After that, the district will have to eventually eliminate the 33. 

“The water quality has gotten a lot better,” Hoelscher said. “We are doubling back and just kind of, where necessary, doing a little extra work to make sure the system works properly.”

The work will include eliminating the wastewater overflows, reducing wastewater building backups, repairing and renovating the wastewater sewer system, upgrading the Bissell Point and Lemay wastewater treatment plants and retiring the Fenton wastewater treatment plant. 

“A Yes vote on Prop Y allows MSD to use bonding to finance capital improvements, keeping your rates from skyrocketing and improving your service,” said Ed Rhode, a spokesman for Proposition Y. “MSD must make these investments to meet required regulatory and system improvements.”

Community activist Tom Sullivan, who has long kept tabs on the MSD, said he had no choice but to vote for Proposition Y. “It puts voters in a situation where the outcome is pretty obvious,” Sullivan said. 

But Sullivan said MSD could have avoided the major work today if it had worked to keep up with standards established in the 1972 Clean Water Act decades ago.

However, MSD spokesman Sean Hadley said that much of the equipment available now for cleanup hadn’t been available then. He also said that the EPA sued many sewer and water entities around the country for similar violations of the Clean Water Act. 

Citizens also will vote on five mostly minor amendments to the MSD charter. Those amendment proposals were the result of a review of the document that’s done once every 10 years. 

They are:

Proposition 1: “Remov(ing) obsolete provisions, modernize certain provisions, references and language and change certain provisions to align with current practices,”  “adding gender, sexual orientation, familial status, ancestry or national origin and disability to the list of protected classes,” and requiring that the notice of proposed rate changes are posted on the district’s website.  

Proposition 2: Allows a way for the Board of Trustees to pass legislation when too many trustees have conflicts of interest.

Proposition 3: Changing the requirements for rate changes.

Proposition 4: Raising the compensation of trustees from $300 a year, which they were paid in 1954, to about $600 now.

Proposition 5: Allows MSD to keep the same independent auditing firm for more than five consecutive years if that firm submits a competitive bid for auditing services after five years. It must change its lead auditing firm at that time. “Not a whole lot of firms want to do our audits,”  Hoelscher said.  

“The charter amendments merely clean up MSD’s charter language to bring it up to date,” Rhode said. 

Sullivan said that some of the language in the amendments would make MSD less accountable.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in St. Louis, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of four books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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