Good Ideas Done Poorly in Jefferson and Perry Counties
A version of this commentary appeared in the St. Louis Business Journal.
As systems evolve and become more complex over time, certain things that used to be commonly provided by cities and counties have moved beyond the realistic capacity of local governments. Two such examples are sewers and hospitals. The last public hospital in St. Louis closed in 1997, and municipal sewer systems in Arnold and Eureka have both been privatized recently. Not all of these changes result in the private sector taking over service provision. For example, in the City of St. Louis and most of St. Louis County, the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) is a large, independent public agency with the resources and expertise to manage the sewer system for our region. Local governments in two areas in our region are currently preparing to hand over responsibility for major services to outside providers, and in each instance the prospects for beneficial transformations are being put at risk by a process that is not being managed in the best interest of the public.
First, the sewers. Festus and Crystal City are considering selling their shared municipal sewer system to the Jefferson County Public Sewer District (JCPSD). Like MSD, this larger, regional system has more resources and expertise than the cities do. However, the leadership of both cities have missed an opportunity to get the best deal for their residents. Earlier this summer, both councils approved a plan to consider only JCPSD’s proposal for a $5 million sale of the sewer system—that is, to exclude any other potential applicants from participation—after quietly negotiating only with JCPSD for months. This is despite the fact that representatives from both Missouri-American Water, which has recently purchased systems in Jefferson County, and Central States Water Resources, which operates sewer systems throughout Missouri, expressed interest in making a proposal once the idea become public. Those private utilities have been denied the opportunity to participate thus far.
Leaders in both cities deserve credit for their willingness to consider major changes to their sewer system. JCPSD’s $5 million offer may well be the best overall proposal the cities receive. But how can the cities know it is the best deal for their residents if they don’t even take any other offers?
The hospital example is even more troubling. In Perry County, located between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau, the county hospital board is planning to sell county-owned and operated Perry County Memorial Hospital (PCMH) to Mercy. Such a deal is almost certainly necessary and likely beneficial for the county and its residents, but the manner in which it has been conducted would make former Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast blush. While they probably don’t have smoke-filled rooms for politicians in Perry County hospital, they might as well have. There are two boards that run the hospital—one elected and one appointed—and the boards have gone so far as to deny vital financial information to elected members of the hospital’s own board who have had the audacity to ask tough questions about the deal. You read that right. Elected members of the hospital board who aren’t falling into lockstep are being shoved aside as the board majority forces the deal through. Things like the Sunshine law and open records requirements are not suggestions; they are the law, and someone needs to inform the Perry County hospital boards of that.
In general, I strongly support local government changes such as outsourcing services to the private sector or other, larger public bodies. Divesting entities like the Perry County hospital and the Festus–Crystal City sewer system could benefit both communities. However, elected officials in both places have a responsibility to go through the process in an open, transparent fashion. They have utterly failed that test in Perry County, and they aren’t off to a good start in Festus and Crystal City. Residents of Perry County, Festus, and Crystal City should demand better from their local leaders.