MSD rate-hike proposal currently lacks timetable to go to Rate Commission

Goffstein ‘shouldn’t be a public official,’ longtime critic of district tells newspaper

By BURKE WASSON

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District’s proposal to raise customer rates currently has no timetable to go before the MSD Rate Commission.

Because of public concerns and the desire to further explain and possibly modify the proposed rate increases, MSD Public Affairs Specialist Lance LeComb said he cannot predict when the Rate Commission will see a final proposal draft.

“We certainly want to get the rate proposal to the Rate Commission sooner rather than later,” LeComb said last week. “At the same time, this is a public process that we’re going into, and what we do is on behalf of the public. So we want to make sure that we have as much input as possible in developing this proposal because once we do get into the Rate Commission process, we have a finite number of (165) days … So we want to make sure that we put as much work as possible into this proposal up front and we present the best proposal possible so that when we get into the Rate Commission process, that it is truly focused on what it is designed for. And that’s really to get the public’s input and to really have it be a conversation about what is right for the community.”

At the Feb. 8 meeting of the MSD Board of Trustees, district officials heard opposition to the proposed rate increases from representatives of the Missouri Growth Association and a handful of levee districts.

Husch and Eppenberger attorney JoAnn Sandifer, who represents the levee districts of Monarch-Chesterfield, Earth City, Howard Bend and Riverport, said residents in those districts would be unfairly charged for proposed stormwater-service rates because they do not receive that service from MSD. Stormwater from those levee districts flows directly into the Missouri River.

“Frankly, and from a legal point of view, I would have to say that I think (stormwater-rate) exemption would be most appropriate,” Sandifer said. “Because, to me, a user fee should only charge those who are using the system. And these people in the district are not using the system at all. So, I don’t think it’s appropriate to anybody in that area.”

MSD Executive Director Jeff Theerman said he is “sure” that residents in those levee districts currently are charged MSD’s flat stormwater-service rate of 24 cents per month.

As proposed, that flat fee paid by all district customers will go to 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 and then gradually raise that level in increments to 19 cents per 100 square feet of non-absorbent land by July 1, 2011. The average residential customer then would pay $4.76 per month for stormwater service, according to the district.

MSD also has proposed a 64-percent increase in wastewater-service rates. That 64-percent rate hike would be done in incremental increases from January 2008 at the earliest to 2012. As proposed, the average MSD customer would go from paying $22.38 per month for sewer service to $36.79 per month by the district’s 2012 fiscal year, which begins on July 1, 2011.

The sewer district has proposed the rate increases to help fund existing and future needs for projects — most specifically in stormwater infrastructure.

Board of Trustees Chairman Dee Joyce-Hayes said raising rates on MSD’s terms would be more customer-friendly than being forced to raise them due to government regulation if needed projects are not addressed.

“If MSD does not aggressively address the regulations once they are issued or if the government perceives that we are wavering in our progress toward complying with those regulations, regulatory sanctions will be imposed on us on top of the cost of compliance,” Joyce-Hayes said. “Moreover, the government in Jefferson City or Washington can dictate the time frame within which we must comply. And we can’t expect any significant funding help from the state or the federal government because government funds that have in the past been earmarked for such a purpose have steadily dwindled over the past 30 years. So, in short, government regulations have it in their power to dictate the terms of compliance without any concern whatsoever about the cost of that compliance on our customers.”

But Missouri Growth Association Executive Vice President Ann Auer told the Board of Trustees that she is concerned that rate hikes will put a further strain on the budgets of homeowners and businesses alike.

“These dramatic increases have not been included in multiyear budgets, long-term leases or other planning mechanisms for commercial-property owners,” Auer said. “So we feel that we know that over time these things will be passed on to tenants, whether that’s residential tenants or commercial tenants. But, again, we don’t know that they’ll have that ability in the short term. And this is not that far off when you look at ’08. So we believe that the square-footage (stormwater) rates initially should be a smaller amount and increased over a longer period of time, giving the property owners the ability to plan in long-term leases and other types of planning processes.”

LeComb said that MSD officials are hearing concerns and answering questions about the proposed rate increases from various local groups, including the Missouri Growth Association, levee districts, the Regional Business Council, neighborhood groups and numerous cities.

The Board of Trustees also heard last week from St. Louis resident Tom Sullivan, who questioned why the board meets before, instead of after, its public meetings. Sullivan said while he understands the need to have closed sessions, he believes scheduling them before open meetings creates a perception that the “real meeting” is taking place before the public can be aware.

“What it appears is that you’re basically discussing business at this (open) meeting at that (closed) meeting,” he said.

“Let me just stop you there,” Joyce-Hayes interjected. “Stop, stop, stop. Why would it make any difference to you whatsoever whether we meet before or after?”

“Quite a bit of difference because it looks like you’re discussing business that comes up at this (open) meeting,” Sullivan said.

“But the point is, Mr. Sullivan, you argue with us about this constantly and you make allegations and you sent us an e-mail this past week accusing us of ethical violations and legal violations of the Sunshine Law,” Joyce-Hayes said. “But you have no idea what we talk about in those (closed) meetings. And I think your accusations are baseless as far as I can see. And I just, you know, we hear you say this every, every month. And I just don’t see any basis for it. It’s fine if you raise it. But I think you really should refrain from personal accusations against this board.”

Board member and attorney John Goffstein added that, during his tenure, the board has never improperly conducted business during closed meetings.

“I’d just like to make a comment on the record of this public-meetings notice malarkey, for lack of a better term, reckless, unfounded allegation …,” Goffstein said. “Some of us are officers of the court and deal with this issue all the time in the public courts. And I can assure you we have never been in any public meetings on an executive-session basis where we’ve done anything other than talk about those agendas. Any allegations to the contrary are reckless, irresponsible, slanderous and libelous. And anybody that’s got anything to say about it, go file a lawsuit or keep your mouth shut.”

At a June 8 Board of Trustees meeting, Goffstein sought to censor Sullivan’s public comments criticizing trustees, who are appointed by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Charlie Dooley. Minutes from that meeting show that Goffstein requested Sullivan’s comments to be “stricken from the record.”

In response to Goffstein’s statements last week, Sullivan said his comments from June still hold true today — Goffstein “shouldn’t be a public official.”

“Anybody that’s that thin-skinned shouldn’t be a public official …,” Sullivan said. “If you don’t want to be accountable to the public, then you shouldn’t be a public official.”