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Sewer Vote Would Slow Guaranteed MSD Rate Increase

A June 5 vote is planned in St. Louis county and city on Proposition Y, along with eight charter amendments aimed at increasing the efficiency and transparency of the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District.

Sewer Vote Would Slow Guaranteed MSD Rate Increase Sewer Vote Would Slow Guaranteed MSD Rate Increase

People living in the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD) can't change the fact that their sewer bills are going to rise incrementally over the next several years, Ed Rhode said.

What they can control is the rate at which that change happens.

That's why Rhode and Mike Kelley—members of the pro-Proposition Y committee Clean Water STL—are encouraging residents of St. Louis County and St. Louis city to vote yes on the $945 million bond issue June 5.

If St. Louisans vote yes, sewer rates for the average single-family MSD user would rise from roughly $29 for the average single family to roughly $44 by mid-2015. The new rate effective July 1 of this year would be about $31.

By contrast, a rejection of the measure would raise that average rate to about $64 effective July 1 of this year. That figure would then rise to about $65 by mid-2015.

"We believe that bonds provide a less burdensome and… more equitable way to pay for this stuff," Rhode said.

The table below shows the expected differences in sewer rates depending on whether voters approve or reject Proposition Y:

'YES' ON PROPOSITION Y (AVERAGE MONTHLY BILL, SINGLE FAMILY)'NO' ON PROPOSITION Y (AVERAGE MONTHLY BILL, SINGLE FAMILY)Current$28.73 $28.73July 1, 2012$31.34 $64.15July 1, 2013$34.72 $64.15July 1, 2014$38.55 $64.90July 1, 2015$43.67 $65.15

Why the rates are changing

MSD must increase its rates to begin paying for $4.7 billion in upgrades mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The expenses stem from a settlement announced in August.

The upgrades will help correct more than 350 sewer overflows in the St. Louis area and will be made over 23 years, according to a primer document from MSD. They will address violations of the Clean Water Act.

These issues aren't unique to St. Louis, Rhode said. The federal government is in settlement talks with other U.S. sewer districts.

St. Louis has a large sewer system. It's the fourth-largest in the U.S., comparable to districts in places such as Los Angeles, he said. Some of the city's sewer system came into being during Abraham Lincoln's presidency, and some of the system is composed of materials such as wood.

Age and other problems cause sewage to back up onto roads and into basements.

The rate increases won't just affect homeowners. They'll also affect organizations such as the Saint Louis Zoo, one of the sewer district's largest users of wastewater. It will also result in higher costs for schools such as Washington University and businesses such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, AT&T, Schnucks and Boeing.

Organizations such as the St. Louis League of Women Voters have voiced their support for the proposition.

Ballot's charter amendments aimed at increased efficiency, transparency

In addition to Proposition Y, voters on June 5 will have the opportunity to vote on eight charter amendments that an MSD official said are aimed at improving the sewer district's efficiency and transparency to the public.

Proposition Y can be adopted even if some or all of the charter amendments are not.

"They're meant to modernize and bring up to date the methods and practices that we have available to use to execute our responsibilities for stormwater and wastewater management," said Lance LeComb, manager of public information for MSD.

Among them is Proposition 6, which would enable MSD to handle the construction of three stormwater storage tunnels planned several hundred feet beneath the River Des Peres. Currently, MSD is required to design the project, get cost estimates and then bid out construction to other entities.

The ability to also perform construction is known as a design-build process. MoDOT, for example, used a design-build process during the Highway 40 redevelopment project.

Doing that has the potential to reduce the cost of building the tunnels, LeComb said.

MSD would also be able to make several additional changes if voters approve the seven other propositions, according to an overview document from the sewer district. Quoting from the document:

PROPOSITIONISSUE'YES' VOTE IMPACT'NO' VOTE IMPACT1 Takes actual boundaries out of the Charter and allows them to be kept in the Office of the Secretary-Treasurer. More efficient and accurate because the boundaries change every time a new sewer is built at the edge of the District. Inaccurate boundaries remain in the charter. 2 Modernizes and streamlines the process of forming sub-districts to fund subdivisions wishing to go from septic tanks to sewer lines and puts the process in compliance with the Hancock Amendment. Shortens the process and conserve costs. Existing process stays in place. 3 Proposition more clearly delineates MSD’s responsibility for storm water management. Charter wording is more direct on the issue. Existing process stays in place. 4 Allows for the use of electronic media in required communications to the public. Allows MSD to post required communications of meetings, and events on the web and with other electronic media. Requires MSD to post required communication only through print media. 5 Streamlines the District’s budget process and mandates certain public communications. Streamlines the budget process and provides for greater transparency. Maintains a more cumbersome process of disseminating budget information to the public. 6 Allows MSD to use a design build approach similar to that used by MODOT on the Highway 40 Project. Enables MSD to use design build if certain changes to Missouri law are made by the Legislature. Prohibits MSD from using a design build approach. 7 Formalizes the next Charter Review process. Establishes dates to appoint a Commission to review the District’s charter in 2019. Question of when the Commission is appointed remains vague. 8 Allows for gender neutrality. Gender neutrality. Masculine tense.

Supporters differentiate MSD proposition from other bond issues

Proposition Y is unlike the , Rhode said.

That's because if voters had rejected the courts measure, the upgrades to the and construction of the new building would not have happened.

In the case of the MSD proposition, the upgrades are guaranteed.

"These investments are going to be made regardless," Rhode said. So he said it's up to voters to keep sewer bills lower.

Reporter's Note: A reader had a couple of great questions that Lance LeComb of MSD was able to address for me. First is the issue of cost: The June 5 election will cost between $1 million and $1.2 million. MSD will bear the full cost of the election. As he described it, the cost of elections is split among the entities who have issues on the ballot. So MSD pays the full cost, not taxpayers, because MSD had to have an election for this issue. Cost would be the same regardless of whether MSD had one issue or 20 on the ballot.

Second is the question of why this item didn't get included on the April ballot. The item had to wait until June because MSD didn't have enough time to get it on the April ballot. Officials had hoped to move the process along earlier, but timing didn't work out. As described in the article, MSD had been in talks with the EPA over the violations referenced in the article. So by the time a consent announcement was made last fall, MSD still had to run numbers and work out other details before going to a vote.

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