MSD’s $500,000 contract PR firm seems excessive

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District will pay a public relations firm $500,000 to assist with public education and outreach required as part of a federal lawsuit settlement.

The MSD Board of Trustees recently voted to approve a contract with St. Louis-based StandPoint Public Affairs, one of five firms responding to a request for proposals for the program. The 12-month agreement includes options for two subsequent contracts of 12 months each.

Longtime MSD critic Tom Sullivan termed the $500,000 cost for a public relations firm “an outrageous amount of money.”

Perhaps excessive is a better word to describe the cost of the contract with StandPoint Public Affairs, particularly given the goals of the outreach program.

The public engagement program is part of the settlement MSD and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reached last year. The agreement was formally approved in April.

Under the terms of the settlement, MSD must spend 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.

One of the goals of the program is to promote public understanding of the settlement and its impact on individual customers — primarily why their rates will be increasing and how MSD is spending their money.

To address the overflow issues, MSD voters approved a $945 million bond issue in June that will increase rates 52 percent by July 1, 2015. Had the bond issue not been approved, rates would have increased nearly 127 percent by July 1, 2015.

StandPoint Public Affairs also will assist MSD in educating customers about inflow and infiltration infrastructure and green infrastructure, as well as local projects.

While the goals of the outreach program seem admirable, we doubt the public will be educated about the real reason MSD is being required to spend the $4.7 billion: Because it did nothing for roughly 40 years — since the federal Clean Water Act was amended in 1972 — to address the overflow issues.

As a result, not only will ratepayers fund the projects to address the overflow issues, they’ll also pay to be educated about why the improvements are needed. That seems like money down the drain because most people are smart enough to know when they’re getting the short end of the stick from a government entity.