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MSD Operation Agreement Still Up In The Air

Bill Rinehart
Attorney Christian Jenkins tells Council and Commissioners that members of the CODE union approve of the transition agreement.

There are still deep divisions between and within the two groups that have to sign off on the operation of the Metropolitan Sewer District. A three hour public hearing Monday night shows there isn't clear support among Cincinnati City Council and Hamilton County Commissioners for an agreement about the future of MSD.

The two sides have been feuding over control for years.

A federal judge helped negotiate a transition letter outlining what happens when a 50-year arrangement over the operations of the district expires next year. Under the new 45-year deal, MSD employees would work for Hamilton County but remain in the Cincinnati Retirement System.

The arrangement would also create a five member citizens board to handle major policy decisions, including the selection of a director. Three members would be appointed by the commission and two by council.

During the public hearing, that board was criticized for not being directly accountable to ratepayers, and possibly becoming a place for cronyism.

Mayor John Cranley says those concerns can be addressed. "Nothing in this agreement prevents City Council or Commission from coming up with binding limitations for qualifications or credentials. Certainly residency [requirements], certainly no conflicts, somebody said no nepotism. That all makes good sense and I would certainly encourage City Council and the Commission to think about that."

Commissioner Chris Monzel says the terms would require the board to have the approval of four members for major projects. He asks what would happen if the board can't agree.

"Because if you don't have the supermajority, projects are stalled. Consent decree work won't happen. And the next thing you know, we still have sewage problems in people's basements and backyards. I don't believe litigation will just disappear because of this agreement."

The tentative agreement between the city and county was announced July 26. Supporters say it needs to be approved by August 15 in order to maintain the county's bond rating. That date is the deadline for a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The amount of time between the unveiling and the vote doesn't sit well with some.

Council Member Wendell Young says if the vote was before him last night, he would abstain. "I still don't have the time nor do I have the confidence that we have the best deal possible."

Commissioner Monzel last week proposed getting a letter from U.S. District Judge Michael Barrett to assure bond markets that the lengthy battle was close to being over. Council Member PG Sittenfeld wonders if that suggestion got short shrift. He says he'd like more time to consider the proposal as well. "The time is about oxygen and sunlight and transparency and engagement that makes the deal better, not for a couple months or a year, but for 45 years. That's not a heavy ask."

Vice Mayor David Mann says after two public hearings and two special joint meetings he hasn't heard anything new or anything to make him think the deal is flawed. "On the contrary, I continue to be persuaded that the commitment that is being brought forward has tremendous benefits for this community and for this city."

Mann says the transition plan supports the city's pension system by keeping employees contributing to it. "Number two, we're going to stop fighting about what ought to happen next and actually run the system. We're going to save money. As we save money, the consequences to the ratepayers can only be improved, reduced rates or less speedy increases in the future."

Commission President Todd Portune says if council can't approve the deal, the county is under no obligation to return to the negotiation table. "Because this is a good deal. And the county has gone to great lengths in assuming significant liabilities and expenses in order to make this happen. Expenses and liabilities that we feel we frankly are under no legal obligation presently to address."

Commissioners and council members will hold another joint meeting Monday, August 14, to vote on the transition letter. The location of that meeting hasn't been decided.

Rinehart has been a radio reporter since 1994 with positions in markets like Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska; Sioux City, Iowa; Dayton, Ohio; and most recently as senior correspondent and anchor for Cincinnati’s WLW-AM.