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St. Louis voters to decide on how to pay for sewer upgrades

Garry Olson, left, and Sean Boyle, both of the Spanish Lake Fire Department, rescue a resident from extreme flooding engulfing The Reserve at Winding Creek apartment complex on Tuesday, July 26, 2022, in Hazelwood, Mo. In just five hours, the rainfall surpassed St. Louis’ daily rainfall record of 6.85 inches set in 1915.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Garry Olson, left, and Sean Boyle, both of the Spanish Lake Fire Department, rescue a resident from extreme flooding in July 2022 at the Reserve at Winding Creek apartment complex in Hazelwood. Proposition S asks voters about a new property tax and a charge that could encourage storm-friendly landscaping.

Voters will decide on two ballot measures from the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District on April 2. The district covers the city and most of St. Louis County.

Proposition W asks residents how the MSD should pay for federally mandated improvements to wastewater systems. Another, Proposition S, aims to increase funding for a new, first-in-the-region service.

The utility provider needs more money for a $7.2 billion plan to meet clean water standards by 2039. The MSD is looking to pass a $750 million bond issue to fund the next four years of a plan to improve wastewater systems.

If passed, Prop W will allow the MSD to sell bonds and spread out the cost of work. Residents will see rates increase by about 7% annually over the next four years. An average monthly bill would rise from about $61 in 2025 to about $75 in 2028. If voters decide against it, the MSD still plans to increase monthly rates — by more than 35% for the next two years. An average MSD bill would be more than $104 per month by 2026.

“Prop W is just a question of how to pay for it. We don't have a choice whether we do it or not,” said Brian Hoelscher, executive director and CEO of the MSD.

The second ballot measure, Proposition S, asks residents to vote on a new property tax and an additional charge — one that might encourage storm-friendly landscaping. A similar proposal was rejected by voters in 2019. More than a year after a major flood, some residents still feel unsure about the proposal.

“I do think we need more funds for stormwater, no question,’ said Jeff Hales, city council member in University City. “But what exactly is the maintenance program? You're asking us to pay for an increase, and you have a whole list of projects. U City’s not on there.”

Hales said homes in his neighborhood, University Heights, were badly damaged by a flood in July 2022 after the river Des Peres Tunnel overflowed. A tentative five-year plan for Prop S money doesn’t include maintenance on the nearby tunnel, though an MSD spokesperson said there are other projects identified in U City.

The 7.45 cent (per $100 assessed valuation) residential property tax would raise more than $35 million a year. For a home valued at $200,000, the resident would pay an additional $28.31 per year. If passed, Prop S would also enact a monthly charge for public and private, non-residential properties with more than a thousand square feet of impervious surfaces, like concrete and asphalt.

Any qualifying property owner would see an increase of $1.05 per month for every 1,000 square feet. Prop S would provide funding for the MSD to complete more than 500 stormwater improvement projects in St. Louis and St. Louis County by 2045.

“When I talk to people, their main question is, are we ready for the spring?” said Trina Nelson, a Democratic candidate for state representative. “They're traumatized. They don't know if this data equates to the city being ready. How can we comfort them?”

“If you got a storm like you got in 2022, it's not going to matter from this point,” Hoelscher said.

On July 26, 2022, it took just 12 hours to reach 25% of St. Louis' average annual rainfall. Nelson said she hasn’t seen enough information to decide on Prop S, but she hopes to see a change before another flood comes.

“It comes up before all the other issues, above abortion rights and everything. People are really traumatized by the flood,” Nelson said.

Corrections: Proposition W is a new ballot measure. The story has also been updated to correct the proposed improvement plans and additional property tax under Proposition S.

Lauren Brennecke is a senior studying journalism and media studies at Webster University. She is a 2023-24 Newsroom Intern at St. Louis Public Radio.