Cincinnati sewer situation stinks of bureaucratic bickering

The sewers in Hamilton County are a mess, and it’s not due to anything that’s been flushed
down a toilet.

The reason my nose is wrinkled, rather, is because the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSGDC) has become the latest object of conflict in the seemingly endless chest-beating contest between the governments of the county of Hamilton and the city of Cincinnati. However, come 2018, there may be a way to salvage the sewage district, which appears to be up an ironic creek without a paddle.

In 1968, the city and county signed an agreement which stated that, although the MSDGC was controlled by Hamilton County, its operation would be contracted out to the City of Cincinnati for 50 years. Basic arithmetic says that this deal only has a few years left, and basic logic says that both sides are beginning to have concerns as to the future of the MSDGC. These latent tensions found an opportunity to surface when the MSDGC began to organize over $3 billion in repairs as per a federal consent decree to fulfill the mandates of the Clean Water Act. Both city and county officials sought the ability to hire contractors for the repairs.

The county commissioners claimed that the city was going about the repairs inefficiently and, using a federal court ruling which said that they could make or change rules for the MSDGC, attempted to take control of the process. In response, on Aug. 26 the mayor and city manager sent a formal letter banning the utility oversight director sent by the county from talking to employees of the MSDGC and asserting that federal regulators ought to speak only to city officials. If the events described above sound like petty power grabs to you, you’re not alone.
About two weeks ago, Commissioner Monzel and Mayor Cranley met and stated that they were “on the same page,” and that they would be working closer together on the renovation.

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Griff Bludworth is a junior Philosophy, Politics & the Public, Honors Bachelor of Arts and theatre triple major from West Chester, Ohio.

So why did it take weeks, months and, in some regards, years to reach this conclusion? The answer is simple: state bureaucrats hate ceding power, especially when one party is fairly liberal (the city) and the other slightly more conservative (the county). Thus, the people serviced by the sewer district have been left waiting for repairs as the governments bandied about strongly worded letters, snide comments and threats of litigation. In fact, I would be shocked if the current armistice lasts more than a month or two. So, what will happen in four years, when the operation of the MSDGC is to be renegotiated?

Realistically, more of the previously-mentioned malarkey. However, there is an alternative:
a shared-services oriented model. The current model (the county owning and the city operating the MSDGC) was a step towards an equitable division of responsibility, but, in leaving one body subservient to the other, it failed to accommodate the growing polarization of county and city politics. Instead, it would perhaps be beneficial to take a page out of an old plan for Cincinnati’s water works and spin the MSDGC into an autonomous organization under the jurisdiction of a board of directors comprised of city and county officials. This plan is sure to turn some heads. It would require great compromise on the parts of both city and state officials as well as intense and careful planning. The county would have to give up its ownership and the city its operational control of the facility, and that, on the surface, appeals to no one.

However, the current duality in responsibility for the sewer district has proven antagonistic to
efficient operation, and to move all control from the city to the county would result in bitter and
violent backlash on the latter by the former. In the absence of a better suggestion from those in power, I will continue to hold out hope for a more autonomous MSDGC in 2018.