Sewer district committee starts work on review of 55-year-old MSD charter

By EVAN YOUNG

A special committee of the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District is perusing the organization’s 55-year-old charter, article by article, to find areas in need of an update.

The MSD’s Plan Amendment Commission will study the document for the next several months before recommending any revisions to the Board of Trustees, which, upon approval, would send the changes to district voters in November 2010.

The MSD charter, which voters approved in February 1954, previously was updated in 2000. Part of that updated language calls for the creation of an amendment committee every 10 years. Each district trustee appoints two members to the commission, which must submit its plan amendment recommendations to the board by June 1 of the amendment year — in this case, 2010.

MSD has kept track of possible plan revisions, submitted by district staff and the public, since 2000. The amendment commission received a list of those 33 potential changes last week. Among them:

• Broaden the powers of the district to include owning and/or operating other utility businesses.

• Make easement vacations administrative issues, which means they wouldn’t require a Board of Trustees vote.

• Include language in the plan that acknowledges the district’s relatively new method of determining rates based on impervious property.

• Review the maximum tax levy of 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation in light of the Missouri Constitution’s Han-cock Amendment.

• Consider increasing the $1,000 maximum fine for certain ordinance violations.

• Call for the election, instead of the appointment, of district trustees; increase the number of trustees on the board; in-crease the per board meeting pay rate for trustees to $150 from $25.

• Change the board action rules so that it takes any four affirmative votes to approve a motion, rather than affirmative votes from two city-appointed and two county-appointed trustees.

• Reduce the waiting period between the introduction and adoption of ordinances to seven days from 14 days; change the effective date of ordinances after adoption to seven days from 15 days.

• Consider seeking Missouri Public Service Commission regulation of the MSD Rate Commission.

• Review the per-meeting pay rate for the Civil Service Commission, which was set in 1953 as $20 with a cap of $500.

• Modify the district’s oath of office to eliminate possible 1950s “McCarthy-era” sentiment in its language.

• Make the charter gender-neutral.

The commission began its plan review Sept. 29 with a rather significant decision regarding Article 1 of the charter. Members voted unanimously to pursue changing MSD’s name. District staff presented the committee with a list of 17 possible new names, all of which were culled from the names of other sewer districts around the country. Noticeably absent from all of the names, however, was the word “sewer.”

“We’re just trying to more accurately re-flect the work that we do within our title,” said Lance LeComb, manager of public information. “A large focus of our work is becoming water quality, stormwater issues — not so much the management of stormwater through sewers — but ensuring that water quality is obtained in various rivers and streams.

“And both the wastewater and stormwater side of the district is becoming more and more about water quality, protecting the environment and making sure that we’re doing our job as the regulator for our area.

“There are a number of facets of water management that we regulate on behalf of the state and federal government in our area that, again, have nothing to do with sewers.”

MSD Secretary-Treasurer Karl Tyminski said the cost for a new name — changing the signage on the building, trucks, letterheads, etc. — would be at least $100,000, though he noted the figure was only an estimate.

The commission subsequently asked district staff to narrow down the list of possible names and provide the group with a recommendation at its next meeting. The name change, along with the other plan revisions, would require both trustee and voter approval to take effect.

Also under Article 1, the committee refrained from taking action on broadening the powers of the district to include owning and/or operating other utility businesses, such as converting sewage into byproducts like fertilizer.

The group asked the staff to provide recommended language for that section of the plan, as well as a white paper regarding the implications and benefits of MSD pursuing for-profit business ventures. Commit-tee members were concerned about drafting language that was too lenient and thus giving the district a “hunting license,” so to speak, to pursue any business opportunity it desired.

The commission also discussed the possibility of amending the plan to allow areas of the district to “de-annex” from MSD.

“Recently with the implementation of our stormwater user charge, we received a great deal of feedback from customers who are on septic systems. They don’t receive sanitary sewer service through us, but they’ve been paying taxes to us for stormwater services and other activities,” Le-Comb said. “Those folks would’ve been receiving a bill from us. They are our customers … but they’ve never received a bill because what they would’ve been charged was exceeded by the cost of the postage and processing, so they’ve never perceived themselves as customers.”

Therefore, LeComb said certain communities, mostly along the edges of MSD’s boundaries, have asked to be de-annexed, but no “mechanism” exists in the plan for them to do so. He cited the Jamestown area in north St. Louis County as an example.

Recently successful state legislation exempts those who do not receive MSD’s sanitary sewer services and whose storm-water does not go directly into an MSD sewer from paying the district’s monthly stormwater-service fee. Roughly 3,500 customers are exempt, LeComb said.

De-annexation has its drawbacks though, LeComb added. Besides possible revenue losses, if a community in the middle of the district were to de-annex, it would open up a “doughnut hole” in the district’s service area, “which really defeats the purpose of having a sewer district,” he said.

Further, LeComb said MSD would lose its authority in any de-annexed area. The district eventually could build a facility in the de-annexed area and resume billing residents, but might face animosity from those individuals, who could claim they are not MSD customers. In addition, the notion that some areas could de-annex while others couldn’t might be perceived as unfair and could present some legal problems.

The commission took no action on the de-annexation issue, but asked staff to provide more information about the proposal.