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Five Member Panel Could Soon Oversee MSD

Sarah Ramsey

Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials are ending a long-standing dispute by transferring day-to-day operations of the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) to a five-member citizens board.
The arrangement would terminate the existing operating agreement put in place in 1968 which was set to expire in Spring 2018. The county owned the sewer district and the city operated it. That arrangement has led to numerous conflicts in recent years.

The new proposal would last for 45 years.

U.S. District Judge Michael Barrett helped negotiate the new arrangement. Many of the parties involved in the talks signed documents not to discuss the negotiations.  

Barrett was involved because of the federal consent decree requiring MSD to stop sewer overflows into local waterways during heavy rain events.

"This the byproduct of local governmental officials doing what local government is supposed to do, and that is putting the interest of the public first," said County Commissioner Todd Portune at a press conference.

City and county leaders say the proposal would save more than $4.5 million in legal fees and monitoring.

"What we have come together to do is put the ratepayer first, end the fighting and make sure this utility is there for the public," Mayor John Cranley said. "And the public employees that work for it have the security that they need."

Hamilton County Commissioners will appoint three of the citizen board members. The city will appoint the other two. Members will serve staggered three years terms and be paid $12,000 a year.

The board will need a supermajority (4 votes) to hire and fire the sewer district director and assistant director. The county commissioners would also have the ability to fire the sewer director for cause.

The board would also need a supermajority vote to construct new wastewater treatment plants or to significantly increase the volume of material being treated at current facilities.

MSD personnel will be Hamilton County employees, but they will continue to be members of the Cincinnati Retirement System instead of the Ohio Public Employee Retirement System. That will require Ohio lawmakers to pass legislation for that arrangement.

The pension issue is important because if MSD employees leave the city pension fund, it could have a negative effect on a pension settlement agreement Judge Barrett helped negotiate nearly three years ago.

MSD employees would continue to be represented by AFSCME and CODE, and the county will have collective bargaining agreements with both unions.

The city will not sell, transfer or lease its assets (treatments plants and pipes) to the county. The two sides have argued for years about who owns these assets and this new agreement does not change that.

Cincinnati will also be dropped as a defendant from the federal consent decree litigation.

Commissioner Chris Monzel says he won't sign on to the agreement, writing in a statement he has concerns about the five member board.

"On the surface, that might seem to work to the County’s advantage, but language in the commitment letter also states a supermajority vote of the board (four members) is needed when it comes to hiring and firing and determining the duties of MSD's director which is critical. The language regarding the supermajority guarantees that the question of who has the final word of operating the system still exists. I believe that a five-person board, not answerable to ratepayers, is unacceptable and should only be advisory in nature."

He's also concerned the agreement will require "significant changes to the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) from the state legislature before it can be implemented in its entirety. ORC changes are required for allowing county employees to remain in CRS and for delegating the Hamilton County Commissioner's daily operational authority to the MSD Citizens Board."

It's not clear yet whether or not there are enough votes on Cincinnati City Council to approve the agreement. 

Vice Mayor David Mann signed the agreement, along with Cranley, and is supportive of it. And Wednesday afternoon, Council member Kevin Flynn was present at a press conference to announce details of the agreement and said he supported it. 

Flynn said this is the best deal ratepayers and the city can expect.

"Remember that even if the city won a better deal in federal court, city residents still lose because we are residents of the county and we are ratepayers," Flynn said in a text message. "And the city might have lost which would be catastrophic."

Council Member Amy Murray told WVXU that "I have read this agreement and I think it is a good deal for both the city and the county, and for MSD's ratepayers. I will vote for it." Murray said she had discussions with Judge Barrett about the the arrangement.

Like Monzel, Council Member Yvette Simpson also says she has questions about the deal. She and council members Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach announced their opposition at a Wednesday afternoon news conference.

"We owe it to our residents to hear from them and to take more than seven days to consider a deal that will impact them for 45 years," Simpson says in a statement.

While Young says he wants to do what is best of taxpayers, Seelbach is less equivocal.

"Installing an unaccountable board to decide rate increases, environmental clean-up and construction contracts won't improve the lives of Cincinnati residents," Seelbach said. "We're giving away billions of dollars in assets for nothing in return and without any kind of meaningful feedback from the people we represent."

Some city council members were non-committal Wednesday afternoon, having not read the county-city document. 

"I know nothing about it,'' Council Member Charlie Winburn told WVXU. "I haven't seen it. When I do see it, I will read it and then I'll have an opinion."

Council Member Christopher Smitherman told WXVU Wednesday afternoon that he was trying to get a copy of the agreement from his staff.

"I haven't read it,'' Smitherman said. "John (Cranley) attempted to call me a couple of times today, but, as of now, I have no position on it at this point."

Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld tweeted out Wednesday afternoon that he is still undecided.

Hamilton County Commissioners meet Thursday at 11 a.m. to hear more about the proposal. A special Cincinnati Council meeting is planned for Thursday at 2 p.m.

The commissioners and council will hold a joint special session Monday at 6:30 p.m.

Final hearings are set for Wednesday, August 2.