Voters approve MSD's $945 million bond initiative
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 5, 2012 - Voters in St. Louis County and St. Louis overwhelmingly approved a $945 million bond issue for the Metropolitan Sewer District, a measure aimed at satisfying a mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency.
As of 10 p.m., the ballot item – known as Proposition Y – won 86.61 percent of "yes" votes in St. Louis with 98.9 percent of the vote tallied. The "yes" vote in St. Louis County racked up 84.73 percent with all precincts reporting.
Turnout was low. Only 8.9 percent of registered voters came out to the polls in the city, while roughly 9.19 percent of county voters cast ballots.
Supporters of the bond issue framed Tuesday’s vote as a way to spread out costs for the average consumer as the agency pays for a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency must pay a $4.7 billion settlement over 23 years to address wastewater overflows throughout the system serving St. Louis and St. Louis County.
“This is about delivering,” said MSD spokesman Lance LeComb in a telephone interview Tuesday night. “This has never been about doing the work; that was decided by the Environmental Protection Agency. Tonight was just strictly a financing question. But now, MSD needs to deliver. We need to be on time and on budget.”
He added that the process to issue the bonds will start "rather quickly."
"We'll be starting the process to issue the bonds almost immediately," LeComb said. "We already have done preliminary work before that. Like I said before, if we did not have a decision tonight and we had waited until a later election, we were set to run out of cash for our capital program later this summer. So that's a process that's going to start rather quickly.
With the passage of the bond issue, MSD estimated that an average single-family home’s wastewater bill will increase from the current $28.73 a month to $43.67 by July 2015 -- a 52 percent increase. Had the measure failed, the monthly estimated bill would have jumped from $28.73 to $64.15 on July 1. The rate will climb to $65.15 by July 2015, a roughly 126.4 percent increase.
The bonds are also expected to provide a steady stream of construction work over the next couple of decades. That's prompted MSD to deliberate recently over its minority and women. The agency's Board of Trustees voted earlier this year to adopt interim goals while a disparity study was being conducted.
After the proposition's passage, LeComb said MSD “needs to make sure that this capital program works for everyone throughout our community, from all walks of life.” And he added that’s “not just from an environmental protection standpoint, but from an inclusion standpoint.”
Through a campaign committee called Clean Water STL, proponents of the bond issue raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Donations included $75,000 from Utah-based Covidien, $50,000 from Crystal City-based Goodwin Brothers, $25,000 from O’Fallon-based SAK Construction, $15,000 from the Drury Development Corp. and $10,000 from BJC Health Care.
According to disclosure reports from the Missouri Ethics Commission, much of the money went toward direct mail and consulting costs. No organized opposition to the item ended up emerging.
Michael Kelley – a Democratic political consultant who worked to pass Proposition Y – attributed the result to number of factors, including the low turnout.
“We believe that everyone that showed up was an informed voter who chose lower sewer rates over higher rates," Kelley said. "This was a good news, bad news proposition. The bad news is rates were going up. The good news is we could decide how much. And tonight, people chose that rate.”
He added he wasn’t surprised by the turnout, which he attribute to the unusual June election. MSD needed to schedule the vote now to coincide with the beginning of the agency’s fiscal year. MSD covered the cost of the election, estimated at $1.3 million.
“We’re not the Wisconsin recall, that’s for sure,” Kelley quipped.
Voters also approved eight amendments to the agency’s charter. Among other things, the amendments include taking boundaries of the sewer district out of the charter; changing the process of funding sub-districts to fund subdivisions that want to go from septic tanks to sewer lines; providing language to give MSD responsibility for stormwater management; altering MSD’s budget process; authorizing MSD to use a design-build approach and setting a 2019 deadline to appoint a commission to review MSD’s charter.