South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

MSD board to consider final approval of rate hikes in November

Rates carried out in violation of charter, Sullivan contends

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District Board of Trustees will decide in November whether to raise customers’ wastewater and stormwater rates beginning next year.

The Board of Trustees unanimously agreed last week to give tentative approval to those proposed rate 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.

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 to $36.79 per month by the district’s 2012 fiscal year.

And instead of a 24-cent monthly flat fee paid by all district 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 non-absorbent property like 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 that level in increments to 29 cents per 100 square feet of non-absorbent land by 2014.

If the stormwater-service rate increase is approved by the district’s 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 bring in an estimated $85 million to go toward stormwater projects by 2014, ac-cording to district officials.

MSD officials earlier this year proposed the rate increases in order to have available funding to update sewer and stormwater systems and prevent additional government regulation or lawsuits.

But even after the rate increases were proposed, the sewer 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 lands.

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

Specifically, the suit alleges that on roughly 500 occasions from 2000 to 2005, more than 500 million gallons of raw sewage was dumped into the Mississippi River, River Des Peres and their tributaries.

The federal and state government also allege that on more than 7,000 occasions between 2001 and 2005, MSD discharged pollutants containing raw sewage “onto public and private property, including without limitation, streets, yards, public parks, and playground areas, and into buildings, including homes, located in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County, where persons have or may have come into contact with such sewage.”

Both the state of Missouri and the United States are seeking numerous damages from MSD for alleged discharges in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

They are seeking penalties not to exceed $27,500 per day for each violation that occurred between Jan. 30, 1997, and March 14, 2004, and penalties not to exceed $32,500 per day for each violation that occurred on or after March 15, 2004.

The plaintiffs also are seeking several permanent injunctions to ensure that MSD will prevent any future violations.

While the proposed rates for wastewater service would climb from their current average level of $22.38 per month to an average household charge of $36.79 by 2012, MSD spokesman Lance LeComb has pointed out that in some cities where the EPA has taken legal action to repair sewage problems, monthly residential wastewater rates are in excess of $50.

The district’s Rate Commission voted 7-4 in July to recommend that the sewer 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.

But longtime MSD critic Tom Sullivan of St. Louis told the Board of Trustees last week that he believes the proposed rates were carried out in violation of the MSD charter.

Sullivan contends that the charter stipulates that the Board of Trustees must first approve the proposed rates before giving them to the Rate Commission.

“The rate-increase proposal you are voting on today can have no validity as it was never approved by the board as required by the MSD charter,” Sullivan said at the board’s Oct. 11 meeting. “When I requested documentation from the district about this, I was told that board approval was needed.

“The proposal itself should have been approved by the board before going to the Rate Commission. Board authorization was also required before it reached the Rate Commission. Executive Director Jeff Theerman provided the rate-increase proposal to the Rate Commission in March, but had no authority to do so. Whether or not a rate increase should be proposed, how much the increase should be and what rates are to be increased are all matters to be decided by the board.

“As the charter makes it clear, all decision-making authority is vested in the Board of Trustees. There is nothing in the MSD charter in either the original or amended version that would allow the executive director to formulate a rate-hike proposal and forward it to the Rate Commission on his own authority,” Sullivan contended.

But MSD Secretary-Treasurer Karl Tyminski responded to Sullivan that the district has not violated the charter in presenting its proposed rates to the Rate Commission before the Board of Trustees’ approval.

He said this is done to ensure that the Rate Commission can independently evaluate the proposed rates.

“It was felt that if the board approved prior to that process, it could be construed as sending a message to the Rate Commission that they need to rubber-stamp or approve something,” Tyminski said.

“It was better felt that we go through the process where the Rate Commission could formulate their independent thought,” he added.

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