120530_council_file

Water flows through the treatment process at the wastewater treatment plant.

If you want to run for office in St. Joseph, a standard stump speech should include a few lines about sewer bills. It’s always a winner with voters.

Sewer rates began to spike about a decade ago to cover environmental mandates. The cost was steep. Rates jumped 15 percent for residential customers in 2008, followed by increases ranging from 12% to 16% in following years.

The elected council, caught between citizen outrage and the Environmental Protection Agency, was able to keep rates steady the past two years. Now, uneven billing collections are emerging as a source of public ire.

So what if this messy business of handling sewage was no longer the city’s problem? A St. Joseph City Council work session Monday evening could begin the process of Missouri American Water taking over the city’s wastewater treatment operations.

The meeting notice specifies that Missouri American Water will offer a proposal “in regard to the operation of the St. Joseph wastewater facility.” Missouri American officials downplayed the significance of Monday’s meeting, though they acknowledge the utility would consider looking into the operation of St. Joseph’s wastewater system. “This is purely an introductory meeting,” said a utility spokesperson.

“It wouldn’t be anything that formal,” said Jody Carlson, who leads Missouri American’s northwest operations in St. Joseph. “We’re just going to talk to them about what we do ... here are some possibilities.”

Last year, Missouri American purchased the wastewater treatment system in Lawson, Missouri. Its parent company bought wastewater systems this year in Alton, Illinois, and Exeter, Pennsylvania, for a combined $150 million.

Should it gather steam, this debate would mark an interesting reversal from the city’s proposed purchase of the former St. Joseph Light & Power assets 15 years ago. At the time, city officials expressed interest in operating a local utility to maintain control over rates and infrastructure development. An investor-owned utility, like Missouri American and what’s now called Evergy, sets rates through the appointed Missouri Public Service Commission in Jefferson City.

For the record, the results are similar. St. Joseph residential customers pay an average of $65 a month for sewer bills, while Missouri American proposes a rate of $60 for 10 of its wastewater districts in the state.

In order to buy or operate the city’s wastewater system, the city would need to vote to move forward, allowing the utility to look at financial data. Things haven’t moved that far yet, nor should they.

But after 10 years of headaches, the city should hear out Missouri American and perhaps let the utility kick the tires a bit.