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Federal Judge Encourages, Doesn't Order, Cooperation Over Sewer District

Sarah Ramsey

The federal judge overseeing the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) consent decree has again told Cincinnati and Hamilton County leaders to work together. Judge Michael Barrett says if the two entities can't, he'll make decisions and they probably won't like them.

All three Hamilton County commissioners, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, Councilman David Mann, as well as their lawyers and attorneys for the various plaintiffs in the consent decree, met Wednesday morning for a status update. There were essentially two questions to be answered: What is the status of the separation of the city and county over ownership of MSD? And, what's going on with the order to keep storm water out of the sewers?

On August 14, 2017, Cincinnati council members and Hamilton County commissioners approved a deal that removes the city from operating MSD. It was necessary because the original agreement governing the utility's operation expires this September.

Both sides say they're ready to separate, but there are some external and internal hitches. The Ohio Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS) and the state legislature has yet to approve keeping MSD employees on the city's pension plan while they would be listed as county workers.

Commissioner Denise Driehaus says OPERS has the information and she hopes to hear an answer soon.

County leaders say an order from the city manager in February ended ongoing discussions about the separation. In an e-mail, Assistant City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian wrote, "We have been instructed that there is no need for further transition meetings at this time. I wanted to let you know that we are postponing the upcoming IT discussion and any future meetings indefinitely."

Speaking for Cincinnati, attorney Aaron Herzig says the transition planning has been robust, and the city has done everything asked of it. He says Hamilton County has received all the documents it requested, and the IT meeting in question was canceled because city leaders felt it was a bit too far.

He says the meeting was about handing over IP addresses and keys, and the city isn't ready to do that until the transition is complete.

Another sticking point is Phase 2 of the consent decree. Both the county and MSD have their own plans. But regulators are expecting one and only one by June 30.

Mayor Cranley says the county's plans do not include upgrades and maintenance for critical existing infrastructure. He says the city's plan will not compromise science and public health, and he questions whether the county's plan is properly funded.

Commission President Todd Portune says the county has been aggressive in dealing with odor issues at MSD and has approved spending on several projects forwarded by the city. He says the city shouldn't doubt the county's commitment.

Portune says the difference between the city and county plans is largely timing. The city's Phase 2 projects are across 10 years. The county has only planned for five years, with other projects listed as Phase 2B. He says the advantage is that technology, needs and legal requirements could all change and make a 10-year plan moot or more expensive.

The Sierra Club is one of the plaintiffs in the original suit that led to the consent decree. The club's Marilyn Wall says they want the county and the city to work together, but overall, they just want clean water.

Judge Barrett encouraged both sides to work together and said he would reconvene the next meeting as necessary.

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.