Will MSD proposal benefit those who truly need help?

By BURKE WASSON

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District is making a commendable effort to reduce rate increases. But if MSD’s $275 million bond issue is approved in August by voters, will it be enough to truly benefit low-income residents at the center of this effort?

After approving a wastewater rate increase of 64 percent spread out from 2008 to 2012, the MSD Board of Trustees bowed to criticism last fall from local organizations that the increase was too much. The response?

A proposed bond issue to cut the 64-percent rate increase to a 28-percent rate increase from 2008 to 2012.

If the measure is approved, the “average residential customer” — a term worth remembering — would pay $25.74 per month instead of the originally planned $28.89. Those monthly savings would gradually increase to roughly $8 in July 2011. While we can’t deny that the proposed bond issue would ease those rate increases, we’re skeptical that an extra $8 per month in ratepayers’ pockets is enough.

We’re also skeptical of MSD’s rate calculations. While MSD has compiled rates for the “average” ratepayer, what about low-income residents they want to help? Director of Finance Jan Zimmerman said there’s no reason to assume that low-income residents use less water than average residents. While we respect that opinion, we’d feel more comfortable seeing actual numbers rather than relying on someone’s word.

We wonder how comfortable the Rate Commission is with scrapping a rate-increase structure it recommended last year for the bond issue. After all, the panel voted last year against reducing rates with bonds. An about-face would mean it is easily swayed at best.

Finally, if Executive Director Jeff Theerman was sincere when he recently said MSD eventually will use its full $1.4 billion bonding capacity, why stop at the $775 million bonding that the $275 million proposal would put the district at and go for a monthly rate savings more meaningful than $8?

MSD faces $660 million of needed sewer projects as well as upcoming EPA-requested improvements. They’re also trying to reduce rate increases.

We say the current bond proposal helps neither cause and MSD should follow one of these two scenarios.

Scrap the bond issue and finish needed work while also aggressively advertising MSD’s exemplary low-income assistance program, which pays for half of qualified residents’ bills.

Or up the bond issue to make rate relief more meaningful than the cost of an extra six-pack each month.