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Tom Sullivan: MSD again asks for St. Louisans' money to fix its problems

Tom Sullivan: MSD again asks for St. Louisans' money to fix its problems

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Sink hole opens in North City

A Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District worker marks the location of underground pipes at the site of a sinkhole on the 5800 block of Pamplin Avenue in St. Louis on July 25, 2020. 

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District will have a $500 million bond issue on the April 6 ballot in both St. Louis city and county, titled Proposition Y, along with five proposals having to do with amending the MSD plan, or charter. There is little choice but to vote for the bond issue, but the amendments are not worthy of support in my opinion. I’ve been closely following the sewer district for years.

The district is using its usual blackmail routine on Proposition Y — vote for the bond issue and sewer bills will go up, or don’t approve the proposal and sewer bills will go up even higher.

According to the district, the current average sewer bill is $56.40 a month. If Prop Y is approved, bills will go to $58.33 next year and then climb to $62.59 in 2024. If the proposal is not approved, MSD says the average monthly rate would go to $65.07 next year and then to $86.12 by 2024.

The ballot language for Proposition Y begins: “To comply with federal and state clean water requirements, shall The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD) issue its sewer system revenue bonds in the amount of Five Hundred Million Dollars ($500,000,000) …?”

What the ballot won’t say is that due to the district’s negligence and incompetence, this area severely violated clean water standards for decades, and homeowners now are paying a very steep price. The standards were originally established in the 1972 Clean Water Act.

The federal government used to cover almost all the cost of projects needed to meet clean water standards. But while MSD continually delayed moving forward with the needed projects, federal funding continually declined to no funding at all.

The extent of MSD’s incompetence and how it was damaging the environment first surfaced in 1986. A front-page story in the Post-Dispatch told of the sewer district dumping 100 million gallons of raw sewage into the Mississippi River on a third of the days each year.

A study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group rated St. Louis as having the most toxic sewage in the country.

Another front-page Post-Dispatch article from 1986 was headlined, “Raw Sewage In Creeks ‘Intolerable.’” It began: “Raw sewage is spilling into creeks and streams that flow past homes and subdivisions throughout much of St. Louis County.” The sewer district had covered up those facts for years.

Some believe this was allowed to happen so developers could build new homes and subdivisions without having to increase the capacity of sewers, allowing them to reap higher profits. The public then got stuck with the bill to fix the problems.

In 2007, the federal and state governments sued MSD for continually violating the Clean Water Act. The district had not only not been in compliance but was not making adequate progress toward complying.

Under a 2012 consent decree, MSD agreed to terms that would cost customers $4.7 billion. Since much of the work is financed with bond issues, finance costs could add a few billion dollars more.

In 2018, the consent decree was amended, and the cost increased to $6 billion. The time allowed for the sewer district to come into compliance went from 23 years to 28 years. The $500 million from Proposition Y will go toward the projects needed to comply with the consent decree.

There are five additional proposals related to the sewer district on the St. Louis city and county ballot: Propositions 1 through 5 actually propose a potpourri of 16 different charter changes. Several are of no significance, such as changing names and removing obsolete titles, but others are significant.

One would allow the sewer district to use the same auditing firm for more than five years. This would remove a best practices requirement. Another would allow any four board members to pass resolutions and ordinances at certain times. This amends the original charter provision that two of three board members from both St. Louis city and county must approve.

Several changes would make the sewer district even less accountable to the public than it already is. But those provisions are buried among the harmless proposals. The charter changes were drafted with virtually no public input by an MSD-directed commission and were then contorted into five propositions.

The proposed charter changes do not deserve support from voters. I plan to vote no on MSD Propositions 1 through 5.

Tom Sullivan is a resident of University City.

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