Revised Metropolitan Sewer District deal addresses ethics, transparency and minority contracting

Terms of deal could be voted on Monday

CINCINNATI -- A revised plan for the future of the Metropolitan Sewer District, released Friday night, has more specifics about transparency, ethics and minority contracting.

Hamilton County commissioners and a special Cincinnati City Council committee could vote on approving terms of that deal as soon as Monday, when they're scheduled to hold a joint meeting at the sewer district's offices in Queensgate.

Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune said negotiators from the county and city of Cincinnati made changes based on feedback from elected officials and the public over the past two weeks.

A 50-year agreement covering MSD's operations expires next year, so county and city leaders have been working to figure out -- and, until recently, sparring over -- what's next. Since 1968, the county has claimed ownership to MSD, while the city has handled the district's day-to-day work.

RELATED: Could sewer rates go up if MSD deal fails?

Under the proposal first unveiled July 26, a five-member citizen board would oversee sewer operations. The board will have significant control of the multi-million dollar operation, including hiring and firing the sewer district’s director. The county would appoint three members to the board, and the city would appoint two.

But some city and county boards have come under scrutiny lately, including the Cincinnati Park Board and the Banks Steering Committee. And in recent years, MSD has been embroiled in a series of controversies: from an FBI investigation and state audit to frustration with the way MSD handles claims over raw sewage backing up in homeowners' basements.

Friday's update makes promises the board will be accountable, transparent and open to the public. For example, the agreement makes it clear board members must comply with Ohio's open meeting and public records laws. Anyone appointed to the board would have to follow state ethics and financial disclosure laws. It also says any appointees should have credentials and qualifications "befitting of such a Board," but doesn't specify what those might be.

Other changes:

  • MSD's purchasing policies must follow county rules for spending with minority- and women-owned businesses. That could include any changes coming from a Croson study, to find any patterns of disparity in how county government has awarded contracts. The study is named after a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case, which requires those disparities to be documented for any attempt to steer more work to women- and minority-owned companies to withstand legal challenges.
  • A supermajority of the board -- four members -- would have to vote for any changes to MSD's operations that would have "an extraordinarily adverse impact" on nearby neighborhoods and businesses. That doesn't include any projects already approved under a federal consent decree calling for the district to reduce its sewer overflows.

Home and business owners have suffered sticker shock as sewer rates have skyrocketed in recent years, rising more than 128 percent since 2004. Despite their frequent bickering, city and county leaders have largely agreed consent degree projects are to blame. The work is projected to cost $3 billion.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, as well as Vice Mayor David Mann, worked closely with Portune and Commissioner Denise Driehaus to come up with the agreement. All four are Democrats.

They say the deal will save ratepayers at least $5 million every year. MSD has an annual budget of $525 million.

The city and county spent more than a year in negotiations, held in private because of a court-ordered gag on public discussions related to MSD.

If passed, the new agreement will begin in May 2018 and last 45 years.

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This story has prior reporting from WCPO.com/WCPO Insider's Amanda Seitz.

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