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Episode 5: Dollars Down the Drain

One of the biggest barriers to progress is, of course, money. The only source of funding for fixing these problems is sewer rates; advocates say the MSD rate structure puts unfair burden on residential customers, while big corporate customers get significant discounts. Plus, county officials are considering a brand new stormwater fee.

Check out the Backed Up digital exhibit through the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library to explore the history of the Cincinnati sewer system. Visit www.chpl.org/backed-up

Acronyms in this episode:

  • CUFA = Communities United for Action
  • CCF = Hundred Cubic Feet
  • MCF = Thousand Cubic Feet
  • SMU = Stormwater Management Utility
  • NEORSD = North East Ohio Regional Sewer District
  • MSD/MSDGC = Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati
  • CSO = Combined Sewer Overflow
  • EPA = Environmental Protection Agency

Other information and resources in this episode:

See more photos and videos at wvxu.org/backedup

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Backed Up is transcribed using a combination of AI speech recognition and human editors. It may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Many Voices (singing) Deck the halls with sewage flowing, fa la la la la la la la. Tis the season to be worried, fa la, la, la, la, la, la, la la. Rains are coming more intensely fa la la la la la la la. Rain with sewage overflowing, fa la la la la la la la la.

Ella Rowen There's nothing like a good old fashioned sewer Carol to get in the overflow season spirit.

Becca Costello Ah yes, overflow season we all celebrate in our own way. That was CUFA, or the Communities United for Action during a protest in late 2019

Ella Rowen The group literally sang their protests to Hamilton County Commissioners during budget discussions for the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati. If you listen closely, you can hear Florence Miller from episode one singing along.

Many Voices (singing) I'm dreaming of fixed sewers, unlike the ones that overflow.

Becca Costello I'm partial to I'm Dreaming of a Fixed Sewer, but Dashing Through the Poop is definitely a bop

Many Voices (singing) Dashing through the poop in an effort to recoup anything that can be found that hasn't been soaked through, Oh

Becca Costello This is Backed Up from Cincinnati Public Radio. I'm Becca Costello.

Ella Rowen I'm Ella Rowen. Today we're cracking open the next file in the case of the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati, and maybe singing a little bit more than usual.

Becca Costello We've made a lot of progress on this mystery. So far, we've answered why billions of gallons of untreated sewage gets dumped into Cincinnati's waterways every year, and why sewage sometimes gets pushed into people's basements.

Ella Rowen A quick recap. Those things happen because Cincinnati has a combined sewer system. Everything that goes down the toilet and everything that falls from the sky all ends up in the same pipe. Our case still has some unanswered questions, though, like, hello, why isn't this problem fixed by now? It's been two decades since the consent decree, when federal officials ordered MSD to fix it.

Becca Costello We've been keeping track of some possible suspects on our bulletin board here, but there's one villainous suspect that's been lurking ominously in the background all along, and it's finally time to bring it out into the light: money.

Sue Bilz It's not that they don't want to help, but it's about funding.

Diana Christy We're ultimately going to need additional funds.

Karen Ball And there's just not a pot of money out there that we can go grab to bring to this community.

Denise Driehaus No money came from the feds when they gave us the decree, they didn't say, here's some money to help out.

Jack Rennekamp Solutions that exist in the future will involve investing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Denise Driehaus No one would be able to afford their bills. No one.

Becca Costello It's very expensive to treat sewage, industrial waste and storm water. That was true when the treatment plants were first built in the 1950s and it's only gotten more expensive since then, as society's standards for clean water have gotten higher. Especially since the Clean Water Act in the early 1970s

Denise Driehaus The consent decree and the obligations of the consent decree are what looms large over the whole utility, because it is billions of dollars, and that is tied to rates.

Ella Rowen That's Denise Driehaus from the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners. The three commissioners approve all financial decisions for the Sewer District, including how much customers have to pay for sewer rates.

Denise Driehaus You can only increase rates so much before it just becomes unaffordable for the residents that live in the county.

Becca Costello Except for the occasional state or federal grant, MSD has only one source of revenue coming in. You and me. If you live in Hamilton County, you're probably paying MSD for sewer service.

Ella Rowen That's even if you live in an apartment. There are a few pockets of the county that are with a different sewer utility or that have private septic systems.

Becca Costello The money we pay MSD has to cover two very big things: maintaining the system, which is at least a century old, and everything required in the consent decree to upgrade that antique system to meet much higher clean water standards.

Ella Rowen Denise says commissioners kept rates flat for eight years because MSD had enough money in reserve to not need a rate increase.

Denise Driehaus I said this when I was first on the county commission. I'll raise rates when I need to, but in the beginning, I didn't need to, right? But now we do understood. Let's try to do it in a responsible way so the rate payers aren't overburdened by really significant spikes in their MSD bills.

Becca Costello Commissioners approved a 3% rate increase for 2023 and another 3% increase for 2024. But that extra revenue is just to keep up with inflation for current service. It doesn't give MSD anything more to speed up work on the consent decree.

Denise Driehaus The one criticism I hear sometimes is that we are not responding to the consent decree projects quickly enough. Two things. One is, if we did it more quickly, that would mean rate increases, right? Because we have to have the money to do the projects. The other thing is, capacity of MSD right now, many of the projects that are related to the consent decree are behind schedule. They do not have the capacity to get more projects out on time, even if we did raise rates,

Ella Rowen Even before the rate increases in 2023 and 2024 a lot of residents said they couldn't afford their sewage bill.

Wanda Moncree Ball (chanting) We can't wait for fair sewer rates. We can't wait for fair sewer rates. Once again, we can't wait for fair sewer rates.

Becca Costello Three years ago, I met a group of passionate activists outside the county administration building in Cincinnati,

Many Voices: Who are we? Ratepayers. And what do we want? Fair sewer rates. And when do we want them? Six years ago.

Becca Costello This is Communities United for Action, or CUFA, the same group that was singing sewer carols. This was about a month after the celebratory opening of the Lick Run Greenway. I had just learned about combined sewers and the consent decree, and I had no idea how much I still had to lear. So many acronyms and smells in my future.

Wanda Moncree Ball Let me remind everyone that access to water is a basic human need. Water is life. We all deserve to have access to water.

Ella Rowen The voice you hear leading the chants is CUFA member Wanda Moncree Ball.

Becca Costello On this sweltering hot day in June 2021, CUFA protested outside the building in downtown Cincinnati where Hamilton County Commissioners have their meetings, and presented several demands to make sewer rates more affordable.

Wanda Moncree Ball We are gathered here today in this place to put the commissioners on notice that we as voters and ratepayers are no longer asleep.

Becca Costello Commissioners and MSD officials said they would consider the demands. Three years later, none have been implemented.

Ella Rowen I feel like we need one of those Schoolhouse Rock style songs to help us explain the rate structure, because it's a doozy.

Becca Costello Phew. You sure have to pay a hefty fee for all this water you use in Cincinnati, don't you?

Ella Rowen I'm just a bill, sewer utility bill. My rate goes up when your toilet overfills.

Becca Costello No actually, Ella, let's let's not put the listeners through this.

Ella Rowen Aw man. Well, that animated water utility bill was about to tell us why some Cincinnatians are paying a lot more for sewer service than they would in other cities.

Bob Park It's based on how much water you use, which has nothing to do with whether or not it rains.

Ella Rowen That's Bob Park, a CUFA member and Sierra Club volunteer, helping us understand the complicated world of sewer rates. Like everything else in this podcast, sewer rates are complicated, so like everything else, we're adding it to our mystery bulletin board. Let's break it down.

Becca Costello Picture your average single family home, you pay for the amount of water coming into your home through the pipes. It could be coming from your sink, your shower, your washing machine, your toilet, even your garden hose.

Ella Rowen That water is coming from your drinking water utility. In Cincinnati, the drinking water utility is called Greater Cincinnati waterworks, or GCWW. It's a totally different thing from MSD.

Becca Costello Here in Cincy, any water that goes down the drain gets sent to an MSD treatment plant to get cleaned up and released into waterways. Theoretically, you should only pay for what you put down the drain. MSD doesn't need to treat the water that you gave your dog to drink or watered your plants with, because that water isn't going into the sewer system.

Ella Rowen But you'd need a separate meter on every home to keep track of how much actually goes down the drain. So instead, MSD gets the data from GCWW and charges each household for that amount of water.

Becca Costello There's a seasonal adjustment where MSD assumes if you're using more water during the summer, a lot of that is probably watering your grass or filling your pool, so you only get charged for your average usage during colder months.

Ella Rowen Here's the most important thing to keep in mind, MSD rates are entirely based on how much water comes out of the pipes.

Bob Park Back when they invented all these rate structures, they were just trying to come up with an easy way to come up with a charge, and nobody was worried about storm water at that point.

Becca Costello The water we put down the drain is only about half of the water that goes through MSD treatment plants. The other half is storm water. We'll come back to that later in this episode.

Ella Rowen So your drinking water bill and your sewer bill are based on the same amount of usage, and they show up on the same bill, by the way, at least here in Cincinnati.

Becca Costello Hey, can we take a second to make fun of me

Ella Rowen Always.

Becca Costello So 10 years ago, I started renting a home in Covington, and I was very carefully paying my water bill on time every month or I thought I was doing that, but suddenly I got a scary looking bill showing all this money that was supposedly past due, and it freaked me out. So I posted this on my Facebook in 2014: Is it possible that we have two different services and bills for water? One is Northern Kentucky Water District, and one is Sanitation District, which supposedly bills us for sanitary sewer and storm water. This sounds like a scam. Okay, listen, I had already been paying my own utilities for a couple of years living on my own, but that was in an apartment, so I never saw like actual utilities, but I didn't even notice that I was getting two different water bills in Covington, and it turned out I was only paying one of them. But hey, if it takes a whole podcast to explain it, can you blame me for being confused?

Ella Rowen All of you poo crime fans listening right now don't have to make the same mistake that Becca made. Here's how it works. MSD charges every customer a base rate. It's the same price no matter how much water they use. So far, this is all typical of sewer utilities everywhere else.

Becca Costello Like most sewer systems, the base rate includes a certain amount of water usage. For MSD, the base rate is about $41 and that includes the first 2200 gallons of water.

Ella Rowen But here's the thing that makes MSD different from some other sewer systems. Bob Park says many single family residential accounts won't even use all of that water in one month.

Bob Park So they're paying for essentially more water than they used, as far as the sewer is concerned. So that's a problem.

Becca Costello It's kind of a use-it-or-lose-it situation. Every MSD customer has to buy 2,200 gallons worth of sewer service, but there’s no adjustment at the end of the month if they’ve only used a thousand gallons.

Ella Rowen That means residential customers are paying at LEAST $500 a year for sewage service, no matter how much water they ACTUALLY send to MSD for treatment. Bob and other advocates say that’s not fair. But if this is the standard way that most sewer systems operate, what’s the problem?

Becca Costello Well even though it's standard to charge a base rate, the base rate for MSD is quite a bit higher than some other cities we've looked into, and that makes sewer rates in Cincinnati more expensive than those other cities. We often hear from MSD officials that you can't make direct comparisons to other sewer utilities, because they all calculate rates differently. Something all sewer utilities share is a love for acronyms. So how do they calculate rates?

Ella Rowen Some utilities use CCF for 100 cubic feet, which is 748 gallons. Or MCF, which is 1000 cubic feet, or 7480 gallons. And some use rates based on each 1000 gallons used.

Becca Costello So yeah, it takes a lot of math to make it a fair comparison. But we did that math.

Ella Rowen Hell yeah we did. Okay, get ready for some word problems.

[Mean Girls] I'm actually really good at math. You're kind of bad at math.

Ella Rowen MSDs monthly base rate is about $41 and includes about 2200 gallons of water. Roughly half of single family households actually use that much water, or more.

Becca Costello A family in Pittsburgh or Columbus using the same amount of water would only pay between $16 and $18 a month, saving about $300 a year. The differences, though, get a lot more significant for households using less water.

Ella Rowen About a quarter of all MSD residential accounts are only using about 1,500 gallons of water a month, but still paying $41. Even though in Columbus or Pittsburgh, the bill would be about $13. I rent an apartment, so I never see a water or sewer utility bill, it's included in the rent I pay the landlord every month.

Becca Costello I'm a renter too, but I'm responsible for paying all the utilities myself. So I look back at all the monthly bills for the single family home in price hill where I live with my husband and dog, whose name is Cincy, by the way, we've only gotten above the minimum charge a couple of times in three years, and at least one of those times was because we couldn't get the toilet to stop running. Did

Ella Rowen Did you ever catch it?

[crickets]

Ella Rowen Anyway, keep in mind, this does not include drinking water. So far, we've only been talking about the sewer portion of the bill.

Becca Costello The drinking water portion of the bill is usually a lot less. So one of my recent bills, for example, was about $66 total, and only $16 was for the drinking water.

Ella Rowen But you can't pay the bills separately, and if you fall behind because of the sewer bill, you could end up with all service being cut off, including your drinking water.

Becca Costello So it's no surprise, the first demand from communities united for action was to lower the base rate.

Wanda Moncree Ball Let me remind everyone that access to water is a basic human need. Water is life. We all deserve to have access to water. Yes, man, do. Now

Becca Costello Another CUFA demand was to expand the customer assistance program. MSD created this program in 2019 and eligible customers get a 25% discount on their sewer bill. CUFA members say this program is better than nothing, but it doesn't help enough people.

Ella Rowen MSD has about 232,000 customers, both households and businesses. And of those customers, MSD estimates about 19,000 are eligible for the discount. But less than 18% are enrolled in the program.

Becca Costello That means almost 16,000 low income seniors could be getting the discount, but just aren't signed up for it. CUFAmembers are pretty unimpressed with the progress.

Wanda Moncree Ball The number of eligible people was so small, very small.

Becca Costello I met up with Wanda moncrie ball again nearly three years after meeting her for the first time at that sewer rates protest in 2021.

Wanda Moncree Ball We had asked them, you know, how many people would need to be enrolled for you to consider it a success, and they had a small percentage. When we have a small population and a smaller percentage, then, you know, it's almost nil.

Ella Rowen So why is the number of customers eligible for assistance with their sewer bill so small? Well, for one thing, state law does limit who a sewer district can offer a discounted rate to. MSD can only offer the discount to customers who are at least 65 years old or permanently disabled and who make low or moderate income.

Becca Costello But state law offers two options for a sewer utility to determine income eligibility. The first option is to use eligibility from a totally different program where low income homeowners can get a reduction on their property taxes. So anyone who qualifies for this other program called the homestead exemption also qualifies for a sewer rate discount.

Ella Rowen This is the option MSD chose for their discount program. It's the easiest path, because a utility can essentially piggyback on another program without coming up with their own requirements. But this path makes low income senior renters ineligible.

Diana Christy From an equity standpoint, you want to make sure it's the tenant and not the landlord that's getting the benefit of that, and what that would require is a lot more work to have it, you know, an understanding of the lease agreements, and just the the how the property is managed, that really creates a much bigger administrative program for us to administer.

Becca Costello That's tough to hear for people like Roy Davis, who would qualify for the customer assistance program, except that he rents instead of owns his home. He spoke during the CUFA protest back in 2021

Roy Davis I do not - I did not serve this country to come home to have the country not serve me. We senior renters deserve to be included in the current customer assistance program. We expect county commissioners to support us.

Ella Rowen The thing is, state law does offer a second option, a more general low or moderate income requirement with no specific definition. That means each utility could choose their own eligibility, helping folks like Roy Davis get the support they're asking for.

Becca Costello One sewer system who chose this second option is the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in Cleveland, who we spoke to in the last episode. They have a discount program for households making up to 250% of the federal poverty level. Any homeowner or renter who can prove financial responsibility for the sewer bill is eligible, and the discount is higher, 40% off the sewage rate compared to Cincinnati's 25%.

Ella Rowen Here's Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells, CEO of the Cleveland area district.

Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells We include funding for our affordability program in our rate study, so it's supported through the rates Our board is very aggressive on affordability programs, and so they were, you know, very supportive.

Ella Rowen There's some debate about whether MSD actually could do a program like this, because Cleveland has a regional Sewer District, while MSD is a county Sewer District. That doesn't sound like a big difference, but it's technically two different sections of state law.

Becca Costello But the portion of state law that talks about rate discounts is worded almost exactly the same. So theoretically, that alone shouldn't prevent MSD from doing what Cleveland has done.

[30 Rock] What smells so good? Cleveland.

Ella Rowen The Northeast Ohio district has a few other assistance programs too, like offering up to $300 for anyone experiencing a financial hardship, no matter what their regular income is.

Becca Costello MSD's Diana Christie says implementing any kind of assistance program can be tough, because whatever MSD doesn't collect from one customer has to be collected from everyone else.

Diana Christy It is a balancing act, because as much as you know, we recognize that we have customers that do have inability to pay. There is that balance of providing discounts to some then increases bills of others, and where's that equity point in what we can provide without having an impact on others?

Ella Rowen Wanda Moncree Ball from Kufa says MSD could make it work, and just chooses not to.

Wanda Moncree Ball Considering that when you developed it, you developed it with such a narrow scope of eligibility, and considering that you can expand it to include more people by the wording of the law and you choose not to, then I would think that it's that you don't really want to. You're going through the motions to say that you're doing it when you could do more. When we asked for a customer assistance program, we were challenged with the term welfare. This is welfare. But you give welfare to corporate companies. You just don't call it that.

Ella Rowen More from backed up after this.

MIDROLL

Wanda Moncree Ball It is a fact that the current rate structure has been subsidizing big businesses

Becca Costello Corporate welfare. This is how Wanda refers to the lower rate offered to corporations in Cincinnati who use sewage services above a certain amount. It's kind of like the Costco for sewer rates. If you buy 100 rolls of toilet paper in bulk, you pay less per toilet paper roll.

Ella Rowen In this case, if you use tens of thousands of gallons of water, you pay less per gallon. So some of Hamilton County's biggest water users, like universities, hospitals and industrial buildings, are paying a lot, but less per gallon than residential customers like you and me.

Becca Costello But MSD director Diana Christy says it's not actually a discount.

Diana Christy It has been criticized and termed as a high volume or a corporate discount. It's not how it's designed, and it's based on that need to cover the costs in the minimum base charge and the addition of additional flow doesn't necessarily increase our costs.

Ella Rowen Diana says the base charge is determined by meter size, and the customers who use a lot more water typically have a much bigger meter, plus commercial or industrial users whose wastewater is contaminated somehow also have to pay pretreatment fees, which ends up costing them extra.

Becca Costello Bob Park, who analyzed the rate data for Kufa, isn't buying it. He says that's not enough justification for charging big water users 20% less.

Bob Park I just don't think the 20% makes any sense. They just like it. That's all.

Ella Rowen Bob and Wanda say All the residential customers are basically subsidizing MSD. Families pay more so that big businesses can pay less. Diana Christy says that's not the intention.

Diana Christy The way it's structured now is based on the need to recover the costs, and there is another way to do it that is something that has been at least suggested, but it hasn't been fully studied and presented, you know, as an option to the county commissioners, and ultimately they would need to prove a change like that.

Becca Costello That kind of rate study is usually done by an outside consulting group, and MSD has done that kind of thing many times, most recently to consider one of CUFA's other sewer rate demands: the creation of an impervious surface fee for all customers and even some property owners that are not customers of MSD right now,

Bob Park The thing that's new is that they're talking about a stormwater fee, yes, the impervious surface fee. And now they have a proposed rate structure based on that.

Ella Rowen Oh, I remember this. Where's that scrap of paper from Episode Three where we defined impervious surfaces?

Becca Costello I think it's under all the Wet Weather Improvement Plan Documents. Oh, here we go. Climate meteorologist Lauren Casey explained it for us this way.

Lauren Casey We have to deal with the implications of climate change weather wise and hazard wise. But contributing to that also is the built environment, particularly in urban areas which are covered in impervious surfaces, which is just a fancy way of saying anything that the water is not going to absorb into. So you're talking about asphalt, concrete, rooftops, parking lots.

Ella Rowen Okay, this makes sense. Impervious surfaces are the reason stormwater gets into the combined sewer system, right?

Becca Costello And remember, stormwater is about half of all the flow MSD cleans up in the treatment plants. County Commissioners asked MSD to study what it would look like to start charging all property owners based on how much stormwater they send to MSD. And that's everyone, private home, a business, a parking lot, a farm.

Karen Ball It's really about how to spread it equitably across all customer bases.

Ella Rowen That's Karen Ball county compliance coordinator for MSD. She's part of the group studying the possibility of an impervious surface fee

Karen Ball Because you have some commercial properties that have maybe larger parking lots and very little building space and very little usage in their sewage; but they're contributing a lot of storm water.

Becca Costello The wet weather impervious surface fee would show up on the sewer bill as a new charge, but it would also reduce how much customers are charged for the amount of water they use.

Ella Rowen So the total bill would be about the same for a lot of customers, some will pay a little bit more, and some will pay a little bit less. It all depends on how much impervious surface is on each property, which equates to how much rain gets sent into the combined sewer system, which equates to how much rain gets sent into the combined sewer system. The goal is to spread out the cost of sewage service more equitably.

Becca Costello This would have the biggest effect on businesses with huge parking lots like Walmart or Target. And there's some concern about other properties with large parking lots, like churches, their bills might go up a bit as well.

Ella Rowen It also means some properties not even connected to sewer service would have to start paying MSD every month, like a public parking lot downtown - there are no buildings, let alone bathrooms, so that property owner doesn't pay MSD anything right now.

Becca Costello Or a single family home with a private septic system pays Greater Cincinnati waterworks for drinking water, but currently doesn't owe MSD anything that would change if this fee was put into place.

Ella Rowen It's important to keep in mind the impervious surface fee plan is just a draft right now. The stakeholder group hasn't officially decided on what to recommend to the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners.

Becca Costello And the commissioners are likely going to hear a lot of public feedback on the idea. It might not be politically popular with churches or parking lot operators.

Ella Rowen Bob Park and other CUFA advocates say they've been asking MSD to consider an impervious surface fee for years, and they're glad it's finally happening, but they have some reservations about the draft plan that MSD came up with.

Bob Park So there's two aspects of how they're doing it that we don't particularly like, even though it's really important to do a stormwater fee.

Becca Costello First of all, the consultants that MSD hired based all their work on a plan that is revenue neutral. That means MSD wouldn't lose any money by making the changes, but they also wouldn't bring in any new revenue, which advocates say could be used to finish the consent decree more quickly.

Diana Christy There's definitely been an expectation that this is an opportunity to fund the work under the wet weather program and bring in new revenue. And that creates, I think, just some confusion more than anything, because ultimately, MSD has to collect and bring in revenue to cover its costs. We don't collect any more than what it costs to run the sewer system.

Ella Rowen The other concern about the proposed plan is that it's based on how much impervious surface each property has. That's everything that water can't soak into, like a driveway or a patio, but water can soak into pervious surfaces. At least most of the time.

Bob Park So after a light rain, those surfaces pretty much absorb the water and never it becomes run off. But if it's a long three day rain, your lawn gets totally saturated.

Becca Costello You know, I think initially, of like pervious and impervious as like two sides of a coin, or like, it's a it's a black and white. It's either pervious or impervious. It sounds like it's a little bit more of a scale it is of how pervious something is?

Bob Park It is, yeah, and that's been studied a lot. So, like, a lawn is different from a garden, and it's different from a meadow. And so there's actually tables that would allow you to if you could classify a property in those different textures, and you could actually have different runoff.

Ella Rowen But the draft plan from MSD only looks at pervious or impervious surfaces, no consideration for how pervious different surfaces are. This is also pretty standard for sewer utilities that have a stormwater fee.

Becca Costello The name of the proposed new charge is really important: impervious surface fee, not stormwater fee. That's partly because everyone in Cincinnati already pays a stormwater fee, just not to MSD.

Ella Rowen Last episode, we learned about the stormwater management utility, or SMU. This city department takes care of all stormwater infrastructure that is not part of MSDs combined sewer system.

Becca Costello SMU funding comes from residents through a service charge attached to the water bill. The amount is based on how much your property contributes to stormwater runoff based on impervious surface. Does that sound familiar?

Ella Rowen All property owners have to pay. Apartments, offices, businesses, industrial. Most one in two family houses are charged between $9 and $13 a month.

Becca Costello So if there's already a storm water fee on your water bill, how would customers react if another storm water fee shows up?

Diana Christy Some of those challenges are related to the overlap, or at least the complication. Of the customers having a separate stormwater fee, depending on where they live and who that is paid to, and what that cost goes towards, and the perception, if you will, that they are potentially being charged for something twice

Ella Rowen All MSD customers would pay this new impervious surface fee charge, not just ones living in Cincinnati. But a few other municipalities have their own stormwater charge too.

Becca Costello Let's head back to our bulletin board and try to make sense of all this.

Ella Rowen Yeah, and get some coffee, because Yikes. Who knew sewer bills could be this complex.

Becca Costello Advocates with CUFA and the Sierra Club say the current MSD rate structure is outdated and puts too much burden on households who use the least amount of water.

Ella Rowen Advocates want county commissioners and MSD to lower the base rate and stop giving corporate users a discount on bulk water usage. And they say MSD should expand eligibility for the customer assistance program.

Becca Costello There's now a draft proposal to overhaul the rate structure. It would lower the amount charged for water usage and add a new fee for how much stormwater each property contributes to the combined sewer system.

Ella Rowen But the minimum charge would still be based on more water than at least a quarter of all households ever use in a month, although some residential customers would have a lower bill.

Diana Christy There have been suggestions and interest in looking at the base rate and also how we charge for commodities, so for the water usage, but that's not part of the the feasibility study that's been completed.

Becca Costello And the proposal doesn't discuss the customer assistance program at all.

Ella Rowen We also don't know when this plan will move on from a draft proposal to official recommendations. The stakeholder group is still deciding what to recommend to Hamilton County Commissioners.

Becca Costello We've been looking into this a long time, and we keep hearing it's coming soon. At first, it was late 2023, then early 2024 the most recent response in the first week of July 2024 is no update. The stakeholder group is still working on finalizing their recommendations.

Ella Rowen There's still a lot of unanswered questions, and just one more episode of Backed Up to tie up the loose ends.

Becca Costello Next time on Backed Up:

Eric Saylor Stormwater as a whole across the county is at times very fragmented.

Diana Christy We have limitations because of what county sewer districts are limited by. And if we were, under a, a different governance structure, we could develop something that, is more suited to what we need here in Greater Cincinnati.

Reese Johnson We couldn't live in community without an effective sewer system. As as gross as it is. We need that to live in community.

Backed Up is a Cincinnati Public Radio podcast, produced with support from PRX and made possible (in part) by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Backed Up is reported and produced by Becca Costello and Ella Rowen, with support from Casey Kuhn.

Thanks to everyone who helped put this episode together and bring it to life: Assia Micheaux-Johnson, Tana Weingartner, Jenn Merritt, Ronny Salerno, Zack Carreon, Marshall Verbsky, Stephen Baum, Brittany Mayti, and Kevin Reynolds.

Super extra special thanks to Leslie Smith. Maryanne Zeleznik is our VP of News. Jenell Walton is our VP of content. Nicole Tiffany made our podcast cover art. Special thanks to Sam Ransohoff, Toni Carlson, Grace Abler, Stephanie Kuo, and Mike Russo.

Go to wvxu.org/backedup to find a transcript of this episode, plus lots of pictures and extra info – like a link to an amazing digital exhibit about the history of the sewer system from our friends at the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library!

*beep*

Ella Rowen (singing) Scooby Dooby Doo, I gotta poo

*beep*

Ella Rowen Aw man

Becca Costello (laughing) that was the least enthusiastic "aw man"

Ella Rowen (laughing) Aw man

*beep*

Becca Costello That wasn't me debasing myself, that was just me being me

Ella Rowen It's a thin line

Becca Costello ...ELLA! What's your middle name?

Ella Rowen Uh, Robert

*beep*

Ella Rowen Can you say that more dramatic, since it's going into the midroll?

Becca Costello (sigh) Fine. (shouting dramatically) SO IT'S NO SURPRISE -

Corrected: July 4, 2024 at 6:15 PM EDT
An earlier version of this episode incorrectly described how much a sewer bill in Columbus would be for about 2200 gallons of water. It has been corrected.
Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.
Starting with WVXU as a weekend host, Ella was promoted to the engineering department full-time within her first six months. Some of her previous audio pursuits included location recording for commercials, independent podcasting, voice work on national ad campaigns, sound design and music composition. Her passion for audio was catalyzed at the age of 8 while watching WKRP in Cincinnati. After spending her childhood recording imaginary programs with friends and family, working in public radio now fulfills her lifelong dream.