Judge: County owns control of sewer district

CINCINNATI -- A federal magistrate ruled Thursday that Hamilton County is the lawful owner and controller of Cincinnati's sewer district.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Karen Litkovitz ruled the city doesn't have the authority to impose its own rules over the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati because the county is the ultimate decision-maker.

“The Consent Degree in this case requires the county and city to implement infrastructure improvement to the county-wide Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) to address longstanding capacity and pollution problems.”

The ruling Thursday seems to have decided a long-simmering dispute between Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials over the city’s so-called “responsible bidder” law.

The law imposed restrictions on companies submitting bids to do work for the MSD, which serves approximately 800,000 customers.

Under the city’s responsible bidder law, companies bidding on work valued at $400,000 or more needed to employ apprentices at a ratio of at least 20 percent.

Also, the law required companies to pay 10 cents per hour for each worker into a fund for a pre-apprenticeship program.

Further, it required companies to have graduated at least one apprentice per year for the past five years.

While Hamilton County owns MSD, Cincinnati operates the system under a contract.

County officials have said city policies shouldn’t affect MSD. As a county-owned entity, only state laws should apply, they added.

As such, they argued the provisions in the “bidder law” are prohibited under Ohio law.

The city and county have been sparring since May 2013 about the law, which affected billions of dollars in sewer contracts.

Some county sewer projects have been stopped since September, as officials tried to reach a compromise.

The county forbade them to be out-bid under new rules during that time.

After repeated tries at a compromise, the county asked the court to weigh in.

In March, Hamilton County commissioners voted 2-1 to hire an outside law firm to prepare a lawsuit against the city of Cincinnati.

Supporters of the law said in the past, the law’s requirement that contractors hire apprentices for certain jobs helped low-income residents get much-needed job training.

Opponents countered by arguing the mandate gave an unfair advantage to labor unions.

The ruling is significant because of rate hikes during recent years partially caused by the cost of construction projects.

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