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Time to resolve regional water debt issue

The Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) is an independent regional water and wastewater authority, providing drinking water and sewer services to communities in southeast Michigan, including those in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties. It was created in 2014 under a bankruptcy order in federal court as the city of Detroit was undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, and is a separate entity from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). A primary goal of its creation was to assume DWSD's $4 billion debt and its operations, so that GLWA could fund improvements to Detroit's aging water infrastructure. Among its numerous member communities are Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Bloomfield Township.

Residents of member communities pay for GLWA services through a portion of their water and sewer rates. A problem arose with one of its member communities in July 2021, when GLWA revealed it had sued the state of Michigan seeking payment for nine years of water service to GLWA, as well as to DWSD, that had been provided to the city of Highland Park – and had not been paid, after the state shuttered the city's potable water facility in 2012 following years of operational problems.

Highland Park was $9.9 million in arrears to the two water providers, and the complaint asserted that neither the state nor Highland Park has paid for the water and the city has no means of providing its own water again "in the foreseeable future." The lawsuit noted that Highland Park has collected monies for water services to residents and businesses, but had not paid the water authorities. And it points out that GLWA is violating a state law from 1917 that prohibits a regional water supplier from providing free water to another municipality.

The case has been paused. But in March of this year, GLWA determined it was time to collect on the billing its other municipalities, notably communities in Wayne and Macomb counties.

Water and sewer rate hikes can be contentious and upsetting to residents of municipalities where residents often see increases to the charges for these essential services. Municipal leaders explain the hikes are pass-through from the authorities, or in the case of Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Bloomfield Township, for water from Southeast Oakland County Water Authority (SOCWA) and the Oakland County Resources Commission for waste services.

According to GLWA, the arrearage is now at $54 million. Almost half of GLWA's 2.4 percent sewage rate hike is due to Highland Park's unpaid bills – a new kind of pass through – one that is being passed on to all other paying customers of the authority, as of July 1.

That's just not kosher. It's one thing to be billed and pay for water and sewer services you receive in your community. It's a whole other thing to pay for a city, and their businesses and residents, that in essence are freeloading off of everyone else. GLWA and Governor Whitmer must get ahold of the situation and rectify it immediately.

That's exactly what several Wayne and Macomb county municipalities have decided – to withhold payments. As of this writing, over 18 communities in western Wayne County, like Plymouth, Canton, Dearborn and Livonia, along with Macomb County's Sterling Heights, St. Clair Shores, Macomb Township and Shelby Township, have said 'no more.' Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said, “Enough is enough,” at a press conference, noting Macomb communities have already paid $13.5 million towards the debt.

Dearborn alone has paid $3.6 million of Highland Park's debt.

So far, no Oakland County communities have chosen to boycott payment, but Bloomfield Township Supervisor Dani Walsh said they have agreed to send letters in support to the governor.

This is an egregious abuse of the regional sewer and water organization. July 1 is around the corner – before another cent is spent to fix GLWA's Highland Park problem, they need to address the elephant in the room – Highland Park.

Its freeloading days must end.


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