MSD board delays vote on increases for wastewater, stormwater rates

Rate increases are inevitable, board members tell residents

By BURKE WASSON

After planning since early this year to raise customers’ wastewater and stormwater rates, the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District Board of Trustees last week delayed a vote on those proposed increases.

MSD Board of Trustees Chairman David Rosenberg announced that he and MSD Executive Director Jeff Theerman decided before the board’s Nov. 8 meeting to delay a vote on the proposed rate increases.

As proposed earlier this year, MSD customers would see a 64-percent increase in wastewater-service rates. That 64-percent rate hike would be done in incremental increases from 2008 through 2012.

While the average MSD customer now pays $22.38 per month for sewer service, the rate-hike proposal would push that average bill to $25.74 per month in 2008 and to $36.79 per month by fiscal 2012.

And instead of a 24-cent monthly flat fee paid by all customers for stormwater service, the district has proposed a system based on the amount of impervious — or non-absorbent — property on an owner’s lot. Impervious property includes such non-absorbent areas as driveways, roofs, garages and parking lots.

The proposal calls for the district to begin charging 12 cents for each 100 square feet of impervious property in 2008 and then gradually raise the amount to 29 cents per 100 square feet of non-absorbent land by 2014.

If the stormwater-service rate increase is approved by the Board of Trustees, MSD then would eliminate two existing property taxes totaling as much as 17 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

The proposed stormwater-rate change would generate an estimated $85 million for stormwater projects by 2014, according to district officials.

Though a decision on increasing the district’s rates has been delayed, Rosenberg said that because of needed infrastructure improvements in the county and city of St. Louis, increased rates are inevitable. For example, he reminded those attending the board’s Nov. 8 meeting that the district was sued June 11 by the U.S. government, acting on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state of Missouri alleging unlawful dumping of raw sewage into area waters and onto lands.

The lawsuit alleges that MSD has “discharged pollutants,” including raw sewage, into such waters as the Mississippi River, Missouri River, Meramec River, River Des Peres and their associated tributaries, including creeks.

To combat the potential for any more problems, Rosenberg said the district has no choice but to raise its customers’ rates in the future.

“This is only the beginning,” Rosenberg said. “You’re going to see rates continue to go up over the next 20 years … The Environmental Protection Agency and federal government is mandating … federal clean-water standards that we have to meet. This is not only creeks, but it’s the rivers. And fortunately or unfortunately, we’re surrounded by three bodies of water. And we cannot dump raw sewage anywhere into that. That’s what’s causing this.

“I think one of the things we struggle with as trustees, a lot of these decisions people didn’t want to make 10, 20 years ago. They said ‘We’ll worry about it in the future.’ Some of my fellow trustees and staff have heard me say — and I hate to say it — the future is here. We are the future and we’re being burdened with this today. And what we’ve been trying to do all along is find an equitable solution to meet everybody’s needs. And we’re very sensitive to the needs of every citizen and every business. We know it impacts everyone.

“So I just want to go on the record that this is not the only time that this is going to happen. We are going to be coming back for more. So just beware. This is only the beginning,” he said.

Board members unanimously agreed last month to give initial approval to those increases, which would finance more than $950 million in sewer improvements by 2012. The district serves all of the city of St. Louis and 90 percent of St. Louis County.

The MSD Rate Commission, an independent body of officials representing various area groups, voted 7-4 July 19 to recommend that the district’s proposed rate hikes for next year are “fair and reasonable to all classes of ratepayers.”

In two separate votes, the Rate Commission also recommended that the district not pursue any bonding or debt financing to reduce those rates for customers.

The Rate Commission voted 7-4 against pursuing debt financing to reduce next year’s proposed rate hike and also voted 8-3 in opposition to letting voters decide no later than November 2008 whether they would like the district to use debt financing to reduce rates.

But residents present at last week’s meeting told trustees that they would like to be given the opportunity to vote on the proposed rate increases and possibly for members of the Board of Trustees. The six-member board is comprised of three members appointed by County Executive Charlie Dooley and three appointed by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.

“Any kind of increase, in my opinion, should be on the ballot,” St. Louis 18th Ward Committeeman Jesse Todd said. “It shouldn’t be from an advisory board. It shouldn’t be from this board. This board, as much I respect it … is not elected. I think this board and the advisory board should be elected. I think before you ask for anymore money, you should have accountability.”

Norman R. Seay, president of the city’s Federation of Block Units, also opposed the rate increases and their impact on senior citizens.

“We are an auxiliary of the Urban League (of Metropolitan St. Louis Inc.), but we have our own voice,” Seay told the board. “We say what we think. And we don’t think that 64 percent over the five or seven years is good. We think it’s bad. In fact, our members had a meeting last night. And we did not take a vote on it, but you could tell by the comments of the people in the audience that they did not like the idea of 64 percent. It would create a problem for me — for me as a senior citizen.”

But board Vice Chairman John Goffstein believes that properly addressing the environmental issues the district faces will outweigh the monetary cost to residents.

“The rate increase is going to occur,” he said. “It’s going to occur in time. It’s already in effect been voted on. Now what you need to understand, though, is what we’re hoping to do is protect clean air and clean water. We have serious environmental concerns and issues. And the one thing that both the (Rate Commission) majority report and minority report agreed upon was that the need was there and that the cost was very much in line with what we had to do and what we have to accomplish. So we’re just trying to find the best way to serve our community …

“And I admit that it can be a problem if somebody’s going to have over a period of eight years as much as a $35-a-month sewer increase for clean air and clean water. But we have an infrastructure problem …”