The lack of transparency is prevalent.
Last week local officials on Cincinnati City Council and the Hamilton County Commission announced that they had reached a deal on the Metropolitan Sewer District. The current deal, which has been in place for the last half-century, is set to expire next year and requires joint cooperation between the two bodies in order to make decisions on MSD’s future.
The relationship between Cincinnati and Hamilton County regarding MSD has been messy, to say the least. To put it simply, the county owns it, the city operates it. As you can imagine, this has produced numerous issues over the years when it comes to funding and organization. This bureaucratic quagmire has strapped local taxpayers with exorbitant rates, crippling small businesses, specifically, across the county. Not only that, but the constant confusion and conflict has resulted in litigation that also costs taxpayer dollars to resolve. A solution has been necessary for some time now, but what we have been handed is not the stuff dreams are made of.
According to a recent article by WCPO, this new “deal” claims to save ratepayers up to $5 million every year. This will be accomplished by creating an independent board, comprised of five individuals. Two of these appointments will be made by the city, the other three by the county. This board will be responsible for handling the day-to-day operation of MSD, while the County Commissioners retain their ability to set sewer rates. As for the operation of the board itself, all decisions must receive a supermajority vote of 4-1 to be accepted and put into action.
There are a lot of glaring issues with this proposal. First and foremost is the timing of this deal. Our elected leaders have had 50 years to think about the next deal, and now suddenly, the year before it expires, we are told to swallow this pill and ask no questions. City Council has a scheduled vote on this deal in early August. Where is the public input? For something that affects so many people, they should have started this conversation months, if not years in advance rather than giving us just a few weeks to absorb this news. If we are going to give Republicans heat for having seven years to come up with a repeal and replace plan for Obamacare and not following through, then our local elected officials should be held to the same standards.
Secondly, we should all hold some degree of skepticism for an unelected board of appointees that have no oversight by any of our elected officials. This appears to be our local politicians washing their hands of the duties of MSD by throwing the responsibility onto someone else. It distances themselves from any mistakes that arise in the future. Additionally, if one of the arguments against the last MSD arrangement was constant litigation, what’s to say that the same thing won’t happen with this new system? With requirement of a supermajority to move the agenda forward, we could have things grind to a complete halt. There is currently no mechanism in the deal to account for this situation, which would likely force the board to go to court to find a resolution, costing unknown thousands of taxpayer dollars.
For this to work, state law must be changed in order to allow roughly 600 city employees, who will effectively become county employees if the deal is completed, to continue to pay into the city pension. This is necessary to keep the city’s pension fund solvent. If those 600 stopped paying into the system, it would likely collapse. Politically, this is unlikely to happen considering the county and city is controlled by Democrats and Republicans control the Statehouse.
This is an issue that impacts hundreds of thousands of people and families in the community. No one can deny that something has to change with how MSD is organized and operated today. But the rush to finalize this deal in such a small span of time with little to no public comment is unfair to Hamilton County residents. Rather than trying to garner a quick victory that can be touted in the headlines, let’s actually push our elected officials to construct a solid solution built on the foundation of public involvement. If we don’t take that path, we will likely spend the next few decades repeating the headaches and wasted funds we have experienced over the last 50 years.
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