More money doesn’t mean better service from MSD, critic contends

To the editor:

There are some things to add to recent Call stories about the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District’s proposed rate increases and the extension of the deadline for the completion of MSD’s new $230 million treatment plant under construction in Oakville:

• The proposed rate increases would result in sewer bills going up about 85 percent over four or five years, beginning next year. This comes on top of 60 percent rate increases between 2002 and 2005.

• The public was shut out from having any input into the formulation of the rate hikes. There will eventually be public hearings, but they’re only a formality. The people at MSD could care less what the public thinks. At the public hearing for the current budget, not a single board member showed up.

• The MSD Rate Commission is basically a sham. It is packed with friends and supporters of the sewer district with a few tokens thrown in. The chair of the committee is the head of the Associated General Contractors, a group that completely supports MSD.

• More money for MSD will mean even higher pay and fringe benefits for MSD employees, especially top management. In 2003, a Post-Dispatch survey found that MSD’s top management was paid 32 percent more than their counterparts in other cities. After more pay hikes, the executive director at MSD is now paid $178,447 annually, the general counsel $175,845, the secretary-treasurer $136,269 and the director of engineering makes $131,354. Seven employees in the engineering department have salaries greater than $100,000.

• Fringe benefits at MSD are so generous, they now total 43 percent of salaries. This means someone at MSD making $100,000 a year in pay will receive a total compensation of $143,000 when benefits are added.

• MSD could be paying nine employees $689,000 for unused sick days. After a state audit of a few years ago found employees were being paid as much as $119,000 for unused sick days, the amount was capped at $50,000. The nine who exceeded $50,000 were “grandfathered” into the previous sick-pay program.

• The sewer district now has 10 law firms working for it despite having a seven-person law firm headed by the general counsel. With increased funding, it will not be surprising if more law firms will be doing business with MSD.

• MSD won’t be a few months getting the Oakville plant running, it will be more like 18 months. As outlined in district documents from 2003, the plant was to begin operating in fall 2005. Despite having all this extra time to meet the Dec. 31, 2006, deadline, district management failed to do so.

• There has been huge amounts of waste in the treatment plant project, which is costing about $185 million more than originally estimated. A large part of the cost can be attributed to the tens of millions of dollars of no-bid consulting contracts that were handed out, often to politically connected firms. Some consultants were paid to oversee other consultants.

• In 2003, the lowest bid for a contract for the treatment plant project came in at $80.6 million — $25.5 million more than estimated. This was because specifications for the job were poorly written by one of MSD’s consultants. The chief operating officer from one of the area’s largest construction firms said at least $10 million to $15 million could be saved if the job was rebid with better specifications. The board refused and millions of dollars of public money went right down a rat hole.

• The sewer district has an agreement with the city of Arnold for treating its sewage at the new treatment plant, but refuses to make it available to the public. The board voted to give it initial approval at its Jan. 11 meeting. Is it a good deal for MSD ratepayers? We won’t know until after the contract is signed.

When people have to start writing out bigger checks to the sewer district, they should realize a big part will go to support more wasteful and outlandish spending at MSD and for paying the cost of incompetent management. Giving more money to MSD will not necessarily result in better sewer service or more sewer problems being fixed.

Tom Sullivan

St. Louis