Everyone Should Be Welcomed to the Party
The Jefferson County Public Water Supply District (JCPWS) has offered to purchase the shared municipal sewer system of Crystal City and Festus. I think this is great. I am a big supporter of service sharing in local government, and economies of scale can benefit everyone. But something is missing in this process.
That is not necessarily Crystal City or Festus’ fault. The bid by JCPWS was unsolicited (apparently) so we can’t say that other potential bidders such as Missouri-American Water or Liberty Utilities (both of whom have been active in sewer operations in Jefferson County in recent years) were intentionally excluded. However, moving forward without asking for more bids would be a serious violation of good government principles.
Both cities claim to be interested in keeping rates low:
“Both cities are concerned about maintaining the same level of service to residents and keeping the sewer fees as low as possible,” said Jason Eisenbeis, city administrator for Crystal City.
You know what other organization was interested in keeping rates low? The St. Louis water division, which has experienced a large number of water main breaks recently precisely because it kept rates low to appease voters. That didn’t give the water division enough money to properly maintain the system, and city residents are now paying the price for that, literally and figuratively.
Politicians keeping utility rates artificially low to benefit their voters is a terrible practice, and one of the primary reasons local utilities should be privatized in the first place.
It is great that Festus and Crystal City have received a bid for their sewers. As we know, the ability of small cities to operate utilities is getting harder and harder. As the municipal sewer commission explained in the article linked in the first paragraph:
The Festus-Crystal City Sewer Commission has been working toward improving the plant, but keeping up with federal sewage system regulations is a struggle, said Matt Unrein, the commission chair.
“We have been working hard these last few years to modernize the facility, but the regulations just keep changing,” he said.
Crystal City and Festus should open up their sewer system bid process to include all potential parties, not just some. Then, city officials can consider all options in a fully open and transparent process. If JCPWD has the best total bid, it can be selected by the cities. But anything less than an open process with multiple bidders would be a failure of local government.