After months of negotiations, Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials Wednesday announced a new governing structure for the Metropolitan Sewer District, promising an end to the arguing that has slowed work on fixing sewers and cleaning up waterways.
Mayor John Cranley and County Board of Commissioners President Todd Portune hailed the deal that creates a five-person oversight board – three appointed by the county and two by the city – to oversee the sewer district as "a major step forward."
"By collaborating rather than litigating, we have put the public interest ahead of political turf wars," Cranley told The Enquirer.
According to our media partners at the Cincinnati Enquirer, this deal, he insisted, would save taxpayers money because it would end costly litigation, protect the city pension system, establish an ongoing partnership between the city and county, ensure environmental justice, protect MSD from political turf wars and remove the city from the consent decree guiding the cleanup.
"The dispute with the city has been a drag on our region's economy and we are delighted to reach a collaborative solution that is good for the ratepayers, the county and city," Portune and Commissioner Denise Driehaus said in a joint statement. The two commissioners, like Cranley, are Democrats.
While majorities on both City Council and the county Board of Commissioners are expected to sign off on the idea, not everyone is happy. Four members of council oppose the plan because they fear the city is giving up too much authority over important decisions that would affect city neighborhoods. Commissioner Chris Monzel, the board's lone Republican, is skeptical whether the new structure will resolve the ongoing dispute.
"This replaces one dysfunctional form of government with another one," Monzel said. "This is the status quo. It's still going to be a mess."
Monzel is also concerned that the oversight board has too much power and could infringe on the county commissioners' ability to cut costs and make sound decisions.
Council and the commissioners will hold a series of meetings in the coming days, and Cranley and Portune want an official vote next week.
Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, who is running for mayor against Cranley, held a late-afternoon press conference with Councilmen Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young calling for more time to evaluate the deal and get feedback from citizens who pay for sewer district operations.
"I thanked all of my colleagues for their work on this, but I did express a lot of concerns. I don't believe they would be willing and able to sign onto an agreement in less than a week," Simpson said. "I'm excited that we got the chance to start this together, but I think that we need to end it together after much public engagement."
In a memo to members of council, City Manager Harry Black said it is his understanding that the city and county now have 45 days to "respectively, formally approve the MSD Operation Transition and Cooperation Commitment Letter."
Black is encouraging council members to send him their concerns, adding that he is immediately assembling a team to evaluate the plan. That process is expected to take two to three weeks.
The agreement itself never mentions ratepayers, the 800,000 MSD customers who have faced soaring bills to pay for a court-ordered sewer upgrade aimed at separating sewage from waterways. They aren't expected to see much change in their bills or in the day-to-day operations of the sewer district, though proponents of the new arrangement say it could lead to long-term savings and improved service.
Though the deal creates the oversight board to handle day-to-day operations, the agreement also requires the city to "transfer all of the operations" of MSD to the control of commissioners.
While there was a lot of pomp and circumstance Wednesday, the deal has another hurdle to clear even after it wins approval from City Council and commissioners. State lawmakers must make a change that allows MSD workers to become county employees but still be a part of the city's pension system. That's long been a sticking point because the city's pension system, itself the result of a court-negotiated deal, would collapse without MSD employees. It remains to be seen if the Republican-controlled state will want to help Southwest Ohio Democrats seal the deal.
State lawmakers told The Enquirer Wednesday it was the first they are hearing of the idea. Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-North Avondale, and Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, both said they are willing to help, but expect such a change would be difficult to achieve.
"I would need to talk to people at (the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System)," Seitz said. "My impression is they might not like it very much. We need people paying into OPERS, too."
If any condition of the deal is not met by April 30, 2018, court mediation would resume.
U.S. District Judge Michael Barrett brokered the deal after county officials asked him to intervene more than a year ago.
Under the new structure:
- The sewer district board will oversee day-to-day operations and county commissioners will continue to set the budget and sign off on rate increases.
- MSD employees, who are now city employees, would become county employees. But they would remain a part of the city pension system.
- The board will have the power to hire and fire the director. Current director Gerald Checco plans to retire, but will remain during the transition.
- Any decision with environmental impact, of which there are many, will need a super-majority vote of at least 4-1. That includes decisions related to wastewater treatment plants.
- The county is obligated to fix an ongoing odor issue in Lower Price HIll, something county officials have been reluctant to spend money on but is troublesome to city residents.
- The two governments will agree to continue to disagree about who owns sewer district assets, which have been a shared responsibility for five decades.
- The county monitor position, created to help assess projects and costs, will be eliminated.
Negotiations have been going on behind closed doors and anyone with knowledge of the deal was forbidden by the judge to talk about it. Even now, what both sides originally asked for will not be made public.
Marilyn Wall, a Sierra Club activist who has long monitored MSD, said she has concerns. Among them: whether board members would have the expertise needed to make decisions about complicated engineering projects.
The sewer district's unusual structure – the city runs it and the county oversees its budget – has led to squabbles over the years as city and county officials debated how best to manage the agency and serve its 800,000 customers.
In June 2014, a federal magistrate declared the county owned the district and makes the rules. The agreement that created the dual oversight expires next year, and the county asked the court to help structure a future for the sewer district that both the county and city could agree on.