MSD monthly rates will rise 52 percent by 2015 with approval of Proposition Y

MSD voters give green light to Prop Y, charter changes

By Kari Williams

Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District rates will increase 52 percent by 2015 as a result of voters approving a $945 million bond issue last week.

The bond issue, Proposition Y, was approved June 5 and will lower the initial ratepayer cost for government-mandated improvements to sewer systems throughout the district’s coverage area.

The average single-family residential bill stands about $28.73 per month. That will increase to $31.34 on July 1, rather than increase to $64.15, which would have occurred had Prop Y not been approved.

Rates gradually will increase so that by 2015 residents will pay $43.67 each month — a total increase of 52 percent compared to nearly 127 percent without Prop Y.

For MSD officials, the election was simply a matter of funding the required improvements, according to Manager of Public Information Lance LeComb.

“For us, it (was) always a financing question and certainly the public weighed in and overwhelmingly, based on the numbers, but it doesn’t change what we have to do at MSD …,” LeComb told the Call.

The sewer overflows Prop Y will address resulted in the district being sued in June 2007 by the federal government on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Missouri on behalf of the Department of Natural Resources. The Missouri Coalition for the Environment Foundation later intervened under the citizen suit provisions of the federal Clean Water Act.

In the suit, among other things, the United States alleged that on at least 7,000 occasions between 2001 and 2005, failures in MSD’s sewer system resulted in overflows of raw sewage into residential homes, yards, public parks, streets and playground areas.

Under a settlement announced last August and formally approved April 27, the MSD will pay an estimated $4.7 billion over 23 years to eliminate illegal overflows of untreated raw sewage, including basement backups, to reduce pollution levels in urban rivers and streams.

In St. Louis County, Prop Y was approved with 84.73 percent, or 49,781, “yes” votes and 15.27 percent, or 8,974 “no” votes. In St. Louis City, the proposition was approved with 86.65 percent, or 13,405, “yes” votes and 13.35 percent, or 2,066, “no” votes. The bond issue required a combined, simple majority in the city and the county for passage. Overall, voter turnout was roughly 9 percent.

Ed Rhode, spokesman for Clean Water STL, the committee formed to support Prop Y, told the Call the organization believes voters who went to the polls were well informed.

“They understood this is EPA mandated, and they chose to pay for this through the bond route versus the cash upfront, and we’re grateful for their vote,” Rhode said.

Regarding voter turnout, Rhode said 9 percent is about what the committee expected — near the 6-percent to 8-percent range. And Clean Water STL’s work promoting Prop Y, according to Rhode, had a “big influence” on election results.

“We spent a lot of time doing media interviews, and we had direct mailings, and we went to meetings and tried to do the best we could to educate the voters on the issue,” Rhode said. “We feel with 85 percent of the vote nearly unanimous … (we were) effective in articulating our message.”

LeComb declined to comment about voter turnout, but said the work being done is a continuation of a program that has been in place for many years. The MSD, according to LeComb, has spent $2.5 billion in the last 20 years to correct the same issues Prop Y will fund, but spending and activity levels now will be higher.

Some of the planned projects include:

• Rebuilding an 18-foot-by-14-foot sewer near Branch Street and the Mississippi River.

• Replacing 1,000 feet of sewer-trunk line near Woods Mill and Ladue roads.

• Replacing pipe and building a rain-retention basin near Fyler Avenue and Kingshighway.

• Purchasing a flood-prone part of Calvary Cemetery for development as a rain basin.

However, LeComb said it is important to note the improvements MSD will make are not focused solely on protecting such “major waterways” as the Mississippi, Missouri or Meramec rivers.

“This is about the little creeks and streams that run through neighborhood backyards … past playgrounds, past schools,” he said.

He also told the Call problems with basement backups will be addressed. Some households, LeComb said, have basement backups “several years in a row” during heavy rainstorms.

“We want to, through this program … make sure the backups become an exception rather than the rule they sometimes seem like they are,” LeComb said.

The MSD Board of Trustees is scheduled to meet today — June 14 — to review the government-mandated projects and approve rate increases due to the passage of Prop Y, among other items. The meeting will begin at 5 p.m. at the district’s headquarters, 2350 Market St.

Besides the bond issue, voters approved eight amendments to the MSD charter.

Proposition 1 asked for the charter to provide that “the portion of the district’s boundaries that are located within St. Louis County” be described in records at the secretary-treasurer of the district’s office rather than being “contained in the text of the plan.”

Approval of Proposition 2 establishes “procedural requirements relating to the formation of subdistricts … and the design, construction and funding of improvements in such subdistricts.” It also would create a “method for levying special benefit assessments, all subject to a vote of the property owners in the affected subdistricts.”

The amendment also modernizes and streamlines “the process of forming subdistricts” that want to “go from septic tanks to sewer lines and puts the process in compliance with the Hancock Amendment.”

Proposition 3 sought permission to “establish environmentally sustainable standards and practices,” along with clarifying the district’s authority to “enter into contracts pertaining to stormwater facilities.”

Approval of Proposition 4 allows public notices to be given through “mail, publication or electronic media, or such other form of communication as may be permitted by Missouri law.”

Proposition 5 looked to “streamline the budget process,” according to information provided by MSD, by requiring budgets to include capital projects and require a public hearing at least 21 days before adopting a budget.

Proposition 6 asked for permission for the district to use “design-build and other alternative delivery methods to make improvements, as permitted by Missouri law,” similar to the process used for the reconstruction of Interstate 64.

Approval of Proposition 7 sets a date of July 1, 2019, to establish a District Plan Amendment Commission, and “every 10 years thereafter.”

Proposition 8 asked for the ability to update the charter to “allow for gender neutrality” and eliminate the requirement that records of the Board of Trustees be kept in “bound or book form.”