Reinstatement of old method of funding stormwater service eyed by MSD board

Sewer district’s user charge a ‘tax,’ judge states in ruling.

By EVAN YOUNG

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District Board of Trustees this week may consider ordinances that would suspend a user charge based on impervious area and bring back the district’s old method of funding stormwater services.

The board is scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. today — Aug. 12 — at the district’s offices, 2350 Market St. in St. Louis. The ordinances would reinstate a flat monthly fee for stormwater services and tax levies on customers’ real and personal property.

It’s “one of the avenues available to us,” after a Lincoln County circuit court judge last month invalidated the district’s impervious-area stormwater charge, said Lance LeComb, MSD’s manager of public information.

Circuit Judge Dan Dildine ruled July 9 the charge is a “tax” and violates the state Constitution’s Hancock Amendment because district voters didn’t approve it.

When it began imposing the new charge, “MSD offered no new services,” Dildine wrote, “just a new way to charge for the services, and charge significantly more for those services, without putting the rate increase to the vote of the people. This is the type of tax increase disguised as a ‘user fee’ that was the target of the Hancock Amendment …”

The ruling was made on a class-action lawsuit filed two years ago by Chesterfield resident William Zweig and others.

“We’re still looking at all our options, working to better understand the ruling and what the different ramifications are of those options,” LeComb said.

The plaintiffs want the court to halt collection of the stormwater charge and order MSD refund the money it has collected.

Dildine did not order MSD to halt collection of the charge — 14 cents for every 100 square feet of impervious area, such as a driveway or roof — or to issue any re-funds. A second phase of the trial will deal with damages. It had not yet been scheduled at press time.

MSD will be able to appeal Dildine’s ruling after the second phase but has not decided if it will, LeComb said.

Before early 2008, stormwater services were funded by a 24-cent monthly charge on each MSD bill and through additional property taxes of up to 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

On March 1, 2008, MSD began charging all customers 12 cents per 100 square feet of impervious area while repealing the 24-cent monthly charge and reducing its property tax rate to zero cents.

The stormwater charge based on impervious area increased to 14 cents on Jan. 1, 2009, and was expected to cap at 29 cents by 2014.

MSD generated roughly $41 million during fiscal 2009 with its impervious-area charge. The district’s current budget projected the impervious-area charge would generate roughly $48 million by the end of fiscal year 2011.

Under the previous funding method of the 24-cent flat charge and additional taxes, MSD generated $21 million to $22 million annually.

“The bottom line for our community is that, no matter what we do, there will be minimal stormwater funding available,” LeComb said. “And that puts us in a predicament in providing ongoing stormwater services for the community.”