By Randy Pierce
Stacey Pace of Troy was the first member of the Madison County Board to speak at its most recent meeting in response to a proposal by its chairman to remove one of five members of a body which oversees the Metro East Sanitary District.
This one of many lengthy discussions related to the complicated struggle concerning the MESD Board of Directors, which have been ongoing for a few months, was prompted by the suggestion that Charlotte Dixon of Granite City be removed from her position on it.
After close to a half-hour of verbal interaction about this matter, the board voted to postpone a decision on it without designating when it may surface again.
Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler had the removal of Dixon from the MESD Board placed on the county board meeting agenda for May 17 and, when it came up for consideration, provided a detailed overview of his justification for advocating this action.
Prenzler’s explanation, which echoed an accounting of information he had released about this topic not long before the May county board meeting, began with his telling how on April 26, a bill introduced in the Illinois House of Representatives then approved by it and the state senate, gives the MESD the authority to continue to pay for health insurance coverage for its five commissioners of which Dixon is one.
The MESD board had pursued and approved authorization for such coverage on its own between 2017 and the end of 2019, Prenzler said, referring to the recent action at the state legislative level as “déjà vu all over again.”
“I will tell you there’s a lot of problems at MESD,” Prenzler said, including having lost $8.5 million in the past 10 years plus malfunctioning pumps, initially monitored by human “watchers” that have since been replaced with automated devices.
When some of the MESD board members resigned on their own, Prenzler said he was given the right to appoint three new ones while St. Clair County, part of which falls within MESD jurisdiction, could select two.
Action by the Illinois General Assembly in 2019 signed off on by Governor JB Pritzger, however, Prenzler went on, amid his objections, rearranged the appointment authority of the five MESD members so that St. Clair County would still choose three, but Madison County ended up with only one, its second representative now being selected by the municipality of Granite City.
That, Prenzler conjectured, results in “putting MESD back under Democrat control.”
Similar circumstances exist, he noted, with the board of directors for the St. Louis-based Bi-State Development Agency which oversees public transportation in the region, as Madison County is now only being represented with one of the five board seats from Illinois after previously having two. Both of those Madison County individuals had objected to certain matters coming before the Bi-State board but were outvoted then the configuration of that board was changed to leave only one of them remaining.
“When something isn’t just quite right, they just go to Springfield and change the law,” Prenzler added, “so that’s why I’m putting this (the removal of Dixon from the MESD Board) before you.”
Having arrived at the county board meeting prepared for this issue, Pace stated she had two letters of recommendation to retain Dixon on that board, one from MESD Executive Director Rick Fancher and the other from its board president, Scott Oney.
Pace additionally reminded everyone present that Prenzler had called for Dixon’s removal in February but that was voted down by a margin of 18 yes and six no.
“Everything I have heard about Ms. Dixon on that board has been positive,” Pace commented, next adding that there is “no correlation between MESD and what Prenzler stated about the Bi-State agency as they are two separate entities.
In reference to Prenzler’s objections over the MESD Board members getting their health insurance paid for, Pace said that was taken to the state’s general assembly by a legislator and was “out of their hands,” referring to that regional board of directors.
Next to weigh in on the subject at hand, county board member Paul Nicolussi of Collinsville (opening with, “I’m going to try to keep my statement within the parameters of the facts that have been presented to me by various people, even speakers here”) said he understands that the MESD commissioners voted to give themselves health insurance with district funds paying for the monthly premiums.
Concerning the removal of Dixon from the MESD board, Nicolussi said he would support it “because I think we need to right a wrong. The taxpayers have been paying out a lot of money for these insurance benefits which, by everything I’m looking at, they shouldn’t be getting.”
Nicolussi added that he believes if there is a new MESD board member appointed, that individual would not be entitled to the health insurance and “We’d be saving the taxpayers’ money.”
Pace responded that she spoke with Fancher and learned any newly-appointed member of the MESD board can choose whether or not he or she wishes to participate in the insurance program as it is structured.
“You’re saying they can choose,” Nicolussi answered. “That’s my point. They could choose not to” to which Pace said, “That’s correct.”
County board member Mike Babcock of Bethalto said the idea of the MESD commissioners’ insurance is “in the hands of other people” along with adding that the makeup of the MESD board could have been changed in the past “for making sure that that health insurance was taken away back when Madison County had three of its appointees on it, constituting a majority.
“I think that’s important for everyone to understand,” Babcock continued. “We had an opportunity to change it (the MESD board) and we didn’t do it then and I don’t understand why we didn’t.”
Prenzler said it was his understanding that the insurance coverage “was locked into a union contract” approved more than once by the parties involved, including the MESD board.
County board member Mick Madison of Bethalto said he was not interested in removing Dixon from the MESD board without replacing her with another appointee but agreed with Prenzler that the commissioners should not be getting the insurance.
“It is incumbent on you,” Madison told Prenzler, “to find a member that you can put up that the majority of the (county) board will find acceptable to replace Ms. Dixon.”
Another county board member, Bill Stoutenborough of Alton, objected to what he characterized as “blaming one person (Dixon) for a policy that some find unfavorable.”
Babcock added that he feels the “health insurance should go away” but explained he knows “that Charlotte Dixon is a good person, she’s done a good job.”
Prenzler said one reason he did not move forward on reappointing Dixon when he could have in December is, “I don’t think these are lifetime terms. I think we can find someone new.”
He added that he had placed this matter on that evening’s county board agenda so that everyone could be “alerted” to how the MESD board members had sought the state legislators’ assistance in seeing to it that their insurance coverage continues.
“I don’t think this happened in a vacuum,” Prenzler said in answer to further questions from the county board. “I think that, and I don’t have proof of this, but I believe they organized this political effort to get this (state) bill introduced.”
What is the Metro East Sanitary District?
While its boundaries take in only part of the western portion of Madison County, the Metro East Sanitary District has been a subject of great focus in recent months by the entire county board and more so by its chairman, Kurt Prenzler.
The MESD operates out of an office located in Granite City with its primary function being to oversee the operation and maintenance of levees designed and constructed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers along the Mississippi River and the infrastructure network associated with them in an effort to curtail flooding.
Taking in an area referred to as American Bottoms, the MESD extends toward the east to include a point just west of Collinsville that is part of Nameoki Township, covering many low-lying areas, including farmland, which can be prone to taking on heavy amounts of water during excessive rainfall and storm conditions.
The area encompassed by the MESD also takes in part of St. Clair County, from north of East St. Louis to the Madison County boundary line, along the riverfront.
The MESD Board of Directors consists of a president, vice-president and three commissioners who meet on the third Thursday of every month at 9 a.m. in the aforementioned Granite City office at 1800 Edison Avenue.
Customers in the region who are covered, which in Madison County takes in the municipalities of Granite City, Madison, Venice and unincorporated areas to the east, pay monthly bills for sanitary sewage treatment service provided by the MESD with a new rate increase, the first since 2019, having been implemented in 2022.
The century-plus-old history of the district goes back to 1907 when the state legislature approved its establishment under the name East Side Levee and Sanitary District with the actual operations beginning two years later. The new name was initiated in 1974, again as a result of Illinois General Assembly action.
The MESD web site states its protection of property and residents includes 16,425 feet of flood walls, 52.5 miles of canals and sanitary sewer lines, eight storm water pump stations and 37.5 miles of levees designated as north and south flanks.
Existing state law, according to Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler, limits the salaries paid to MESD commissioners to being less than what the county board members, including those in St. Clair to the immediate south, are paid.
With Madison County’s board members getting $14,500 annually, lower than St. Clair’s, the MESD Board members receive a lesser amount of compensation in that form, but Prenzler contends they receive health insurance coverage valued in excess of $10,000 per year.
He said the legislation approved in the Illinois General Assembly recently provides for the MESD to pay for its employees’ and commissioners’ life, health, accident, hospitalization and medical insurance.
Prenzler added that in 2017 when the MESD area flooded, three of its commissioners stepped down.