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Great Lakes Article:

Water deal for New Berlin advances

Milwaukee aldermen OK negotiations to sell lake water to suburb

By CORISSA JANSEN and GREG J. BOROWSKI
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
June 27, 2002

The Milwaukee Common Council on Tuesday granted the Milwaukee Water Works authority to negotiate the sale of Lake Michigan water to New Berlin, an agreement that could bring in about $608,000 a year for Milwaukee.

With a 10-7 vote, aldermen approved pursuing a deal after officials debated the merits of selling water to expanding suburbs.

Supporters argued that the Water Works has excess capacity and that increasing sales to the suburbs can keep rates down for city customers. Critics have suggested the sale of water is shortsighted since it can allow suburbs to grow at the expense of the city, including by luring away businesses and jobs.

"There certainly is a history, going back to the '60s and '70s, of concerns that have been brought up - and it was fair to discuss that," New Berlin Mayor Ted Wysocki said after the vote.

"But it was also encouraging to hear other remarks by some (aldermen) who felt that maybe it's time to put aside the past and begin looking at issues of regional sharing and concern," Wysocki added.

Any agreement would have to go back to the Milwaukee Common Council for approval.

This month, Milwaukee's Utilities and Licenses Committee voted unanimously to recommend that the council authorize water negotiations with New Berlin.

"I personally think we ought to sell as much water as we possibly can," Jeff Pawlinski, Milwaukee alderman and committee chairman, said. "I'm very pro-Milwaukee, but I don't necessarily consider myself anti-suburbanite."

The Water Works already sells water to all or part of more than a dozen suburbs that previously relied on well water, deals that are expected to bring in about $74.1 million this year.

However, critics on Tuesday questioned whether Milwaukee will benefit in the long term by selling water to suburbs.

"It's not that I don't think New Berlin is a nice community," but there is a principle involved in furnishing water, Milwaukee Ald. Michael Murphy said. Murphy cited a series of demographic statistics from a required preliminary study of the plan.

Cities' disparities

The report provides several comparisons between Milwaukee and New Berlin. For example, it outlines that the percentage of families that were below the federal poverty level in 1999 was 17.4% in Milwaukee, compared with 1.3% in New Berlin.

And according to the report, New Berlin property values have soared faster than Milwaukee's in the past decade, with a 77.1% growth in total equalized value in New Berlin compared with 46.5% growth in Milwaukee. Commercial property value in New Berlin grew by 135%, compared with 39.7% in Milwaukee.

Some Milwaukee aldermen said that in the future, any required study should show whether the suburban community has a regional transportation plan that allows Milwaukee County buses to connect with jobs and whether the community has plans to develop any affordable housing.

"In every one of these cases, we should be negotiating not only the rate, but things that are in our public interest, too," Milwaukee Ald. Paul Henningsen said. "You guys are looking at the dollar signs, but to me there are bigger issues."

Milwaukee Ald. Suzanne Breier noted money is an important consideration, since the sale is expected to bring in more than $600,000 a year for the Milwaukee Water Works.

Wysocki said buying Lake Michigan water from the Water Works or remaining with New Berlin's current groundwater system are probably the two "best options" for the city as it grapples with both water quantity and quality issues.

New Berlin still must investigate the financial viability of remaining on a groundwater supply, Wysocki said. The city also must determine how much it would cost to meet federal requirements limiting radium and iron content and to remedy other quality issues.

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