Cincinnati/Hamilton County pledge to improve MSD relationship

Dec 22, 2014

Credit Sarah Ramsey / WVXU

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann said they are committed to fixing the broken relationship between the city and county concerning the Metropolitan Sewer District.  Both spoke after an hour long meeting Monday at City Hall.  

Hartmann said for MSD to be successful, the county has to have a coordinated approach with the city.

“We’ve committed to a process today where disputes don’t result in us immediately running back to court to have a judge figure out who’s right,” Hartmann said.  “Ultimately those kinds of disputes are bad for ratepayers.  I’m convinced that we’ve put ourselves on a course to establish a new relationship.”

Cranley said he left the session feeling there is a new commitment to affordability and cost containment.

“All the actions we have made in the last couple of weeks, we believe were motivated by listening to the county’s concerns on that issue,” Cranley said.  “We could have done a better job communicating that.  But now we’ve committed to a mediation process and to a joint selection of a way resolve disputes that I think will save taxpayers and ratepayers money.”

Hartmann said the MSD dispute resolution process will primarily involve better communication between the parties.  Cranley also agreed that is a key component.

“Right now what’s happened is the county has hired experts and the city has hired experts and they’re almost setup to clash with each other,” Cranley said.  “We agreed to a process that we would replace that with us hiring, together, an expert that we would all agree at the front-end has got the interest on cost containment and affordability as their focus.”

Hartmann and Cranley both agree the city/county relationship concerning MSD is broken.

“It’s something that we’ve got to fix as part of the jobs we’re elected to do,” Hartmann said.  “And that is stand-up for ratepayers, make the fixes that are needed in our sewer district, but do it in the most cost-effective way and really the only path forward to do that is if we work together.”

City Manager Harry Black recently halted a major consent decree project just as work was ready to start.  He said the Lick Run project needs to be re-bid to save money.  The decision caught the county by surprise and commissions said they wanted to see Black's math.  

Last week, Commissioner Chris Monzel said the county would likely go back to federal court for clarity on an earlier ruling on whether the city or county has the final says on sewer projects.  In that ruling, the judge sided with the county.  

Hamilton County created the sewer district, but the city manages it under a 1968 agreement that expires in 2018.

In June, a federal magistrate ruled Cincinnati's responsible bidder ordinance was invalid and Hamilton County makes the rules for MSD.

The city and the county had been fighting for more than two years over the responsible bidder ordinance, which would force MSD contractors to have apprentice programs and pay into a pre-apprenticeship fund. Unions favor the ordinance because many of them have apprentice programs.

The Republican majority on the Hamilton County Commission has opposed responsible bidder, saying it puts unfair burdens on contractors. And, they argued, that it is illegal.

No compromise could be worked out, so the county took the matter to U.S. District Court.

Magistrate Karen Litkovitz said in her 29-page ruling the city cannot force its rules on the county because, as the owner of MSD, the county makes the final decisions. That, Litkovitz said, goes back to the 1968 agreement that created the MSD arrangement between the county and the city.

(Howard Wilkinson contributed to this story.)