To the editor:
Since March 2003, when a new Board of Trustees was appointed and a new management team put into place, the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District has greatly increased its level of public accountability and openness.
Accordingly, we make every effort to ensure that factual information is conveyed to the public on how we run our business. Unfortunately, the author of a Jan. 31 letter to the editor chooses to distort facts and omit key information, potentially misleading readers. These are the documented and verifiable facts related to the issues the author raises — facts that have been explained to the author in multiple public meetings and in correspondence between him and the district:
From 2003 to 2007, MSD’s wastewater rates increased approximately 60 percent. As part of a rate proposal that staff has developed for the next five years, wastewater charges will increase another 64 percent. While this rate proposal has not yet been approved and must undergo months of review by our Rate Commission, increases are necessary to fund projects that MSD must build to meet state and federal environmental regulations.
MSD’s independent Rate Commission was approved by area voters in November 2000 and is designed to allow for maximum public input into the setting of MSD’s rates. While we feel that in developing this proposal we have struck the best possible balance between the regulatory needs of our community and the household budgets of our customers, the Rate Commission has the power to produce an alternative proposal.
A 2003 Post-Dispatch article referenced by the author is critical of the compensation that then-senior managers received. However, the author leaves out that several of the individuals singled out in the story no longer work at the district, and that their positions were eliminated or their replacements were hired at significantly lower salaries. Furthermore, the author singles out the pay of MSD’s secretary-treasurer. In October 2005 when this employee’s salary was approved, the author was complimentary of the secretary-treasurer’s performance and that of his staff. This was recorded in an open public meeting.
As the result of a 2002 state audit and reviews that we conducted on compensation at other public agencies, the new board and the new management team recognized that MSD salaries and benefits were not in line with that of similar organizations. In 2003, pay increases for employees were permanently reduced, and, a year later, we made changes in our pension program to bring total employee compensation in line with other state and local government agencies.
MSD has an in-house legal staff of five attorneys, one paralegal, and one administrative assistant. This group has the ability to call on 10 different law firms with expertise in areas of the law covering delinquent debt collection, labor relations, real estate transactions, environmental regulations and bond financing — just a few of the areas of legal expertise that MSD must utilize, but cannot retain in-house without spending exorbitant sums of money. In 2006, our staff managed over 4,000 separate legal matters, a large portion of which dealt with delinquent account collections.
Specific to MSD’s performance on the $230 million Lower Meramec Program, which includes a wastewater treatment plant in Oakville, neither the plant nor the program as a whole was projected to cost $45 million, as the author alludes. In 1997 — and separate from the current Lower Meramec Program — MSD presented to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources a temporary solution for the regulatory issues that our current work is addressing. This solution involved only the construction of a much smaller, temporary treatment facility and replacement of an existing pump station and sewer line. The cost of this alternate solution was estimated in 1997 at $63 million — $46 million for the plant and $17 million for the pump station and sewer line. In 2000, this temporary solution was turned down by the MDNR, and MSD was directed to proceed with the construction of the permanent and much-larger regional facility that is today’s Lower Meramec Program.
The firm responsible for designing the plant made a $22 million error in estimating construction cost. In addition to other sanctions, the firm was made to pay for verification of the plant’s current costs, forbidden from bidding on MSD work for one year and had a previously awarded contract taken away. The firm’s error was serious, but competitive bidding showed the higher number to be the correct cost. The CEO that said $10 million to $15 million could be saved by rebidding the plant was with the second highest bidder on the plant’s construction — a firm that stood to possibly win the contract if a rebid would have taken place. Regardless, construction needed to begin to stay on track with time constraints imposed by MDNR.
MSD does not award “no-bid” contracts for design and engineering work. MSD uses a selection process that takes into account both ability and cost. MSD’s process is in accordance with federal guidelines and state laws — specifically Chapter 8 of the Missouri Revised Statutes.
While I cannot fully address each and every inaccuracy in the author’s letter — it would take several pages of this newspaper — I would invite readers to compare the above information to what was printed Jan. 31. Such a comparison would show a stark contrast.
For those readers who may have continued doubts about MSD, every month we hold public events ranging from board meetings to project updates to community open houses.
We make every effort to publicize these events through the district’s Web site at www.stlmsd.com, advertisements in local papers and announcements on area radio stations.
Please join us and judge MSD’s public accountability for yourself.
Lance LeComb, spokesman
Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District