Metro-East News

Local sewer and levee district illegally created a taxing body, judge rules

Metro East Sanitary District Director Steve Adler is dwarfed by the massive pump motors inside the pumping station where the Cahokia Canal enters the Mississippi River.
Metro East Sanitary District Director Steve Adler is dwarfed by the massive pump motors inside the pumping station where the Cahokia Canal enters the Mississippi River.

A sewer and levee district that serves a large area of the metro-east tried to create a new taxing body, but a St. Clair County judge ruled Friday that the effort was unlawful.

Also on Friday, Madison County announced that it will seek a similar ruling in Madison County's portion of the district, which is called the Metro East Sanitary District.

Officials in St. Clair and Madison counties said the new taxing body, if allowed, would have increased some residents' property tax bills by $300 to $400 annually for a $100,000 home.

But MESD's director says the effort to create the new taxing body, called a "special service area," was merely an attempt to find a fair way to pay for needed repairs to the district's crumbling sewer system. The special service area would have covered only properties that use MESD's sewer service.

Not all properties within MESD's area receive sewer service from MESD. In other words, without the special taxing district, some property owners within the MESD area will be helping to pay for the sewer system, even though they don't use MESD's sewer system.

For about 9,500 property owners in East St. Louis, Fairmont City, Brooklyn, Washington Park, Eagle Park and Caseyville, the St. Clair County decision means their property tax bill will not increase by $400 for every $100,000 of property value. For about 140 customers in Madison County, the amount would have been about $300 per $100,000 of property value, the county clerks offices reported on Friday.

MESD director Steve Adler said he expects that the taxing body to be dissolved in both counties, due to the St. Clair County judge's ruling. He added, however, that an appeal could be an option.

The lawsuit in St. Clair County was filed in late April and was decided Friday by Judge Julie Katz.

Without the special service area, MESD will need to find another way to pay for "inequities" that involve 75-year-old sewer lines, Adler said. Currently, the customers paying for the levee maintenance and maintenance of drainage ditches and canals are also paying for sewer services — which are only used by 9,682 properties. Other customers in the levee district are served by other sewer providers, such as American Bottoms, Adler said.

The way it stands now, some people are paying for the sewer lines but are not the ones using them, he said, and the taxing body was an effort to change that.

Adler said the taxing body would have added $309,000 to MESD coffers the first year, and that money would have been used to pay a "forgivable loan" from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, he said. That loan is paying for 60 percent of the cost to repair lining or replace sewer lines in the affected areas.

How the district will pay to repair those lines is beyond the state's attorney's office, Brendan Kelly said on Friday, but his office will "certainly work with the sanitary district to see anything they do going forward is within the boundaries of the law."

"We have so many layers of government in Illinois, so many taxing districts, it’s easy to see how these things can creep along," he said, crediting county workers with listening to and passing along concerns from residents.

In Madison County, State's Attorney Tom Gibbons issued a statement saying his office was filing a similar suit involving Madison County property that is within the MESD area. Gibbons was not immediately available for additional comment.

Gibbons, in a news release, said that his suit against MESD could delay, if not permanently prevent, an increase in property taxes.

“By bringing suit at this time, we should be able to keep this property tax increase from making it onto the property tax bills that will be hitting mailboxes very soon,” Gibbons said.

That's exactly what St. Clair County was able to do, county Clerk Tom Holbrook said.

"We've moved ahead, adjusted property tax levies, sent down to the property tax (division), and they're ready to print bills, I think," Holbook said. He said the taxing body would have tripled the MESD tax on affected property owners' bills.

Madison County Clerk Debbie Ming-Mendoza's office said the tax increase there would have been about $300 per year for a $100,000 home.

The MESD serves an area of the metro-east roughly from the Mississippi River to Illinois 157 from near Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to south of the St. Louis Downtown Airport.

Mary Cooley: 618-239-2535, @MaryCooleyBND