deep history runs beneath the battle for Detroitís water
Detroit Metro Times
war over Detroit water has been going on so long you would
think we lived in the parched Southwest, where insecurity
about long-term sources of life-sustaining water is constant.
While our entire region resists attempts to tap the Great
Lakes in order to suckle Western states, we have a microcosm
of that water-grabbing attitude right here in the metro
charges of high rates and a lack of representation, Detroit
has been taking hits from suburban politicians who are
once more trying to seize control of the system that pumps
water throughout southeast Michigan and treats its sewage.
uncivil war reached new depths in recent weeks as Warrens
city attorney threatened during a public hearing to have
Detroits mayor and the director of its water department
jailed. That hearing and others like it were held to debate
the merits of legislation intended to wrest control of
the water and sewer system which serves 126 southeast
Michigan communities spread across 1,031 square miles
from the city that built it.
the high drama around the issue has received much attention,
the legislation itself has been scarcely examined. Given
even less attention is the historical context that frames
under the bridge
established its water department in 1836 and has provided
service within and beyond its boundaries since then. As
the region expanded, the city used its ability to sell
bonds, with inherent risks, to finance expanding the system
facilitating suburban growth.
inevitably, tension began to arise; the initial concern,
however, was not suburban control of the water system
but rather Detroit officials balking at the idea of subsidizing
growth that would eventually drain away residents and
erode Detroits tax base. The issue came to a head
in 1955 when Detroit water chief Laurence Lenhardt said
Detroit would no longer add new suburbs to its system,
capping service at the 42 cities then buying Detroit water.
the previous three summers drought had virtually dried
up spigots in western Wayne County. Some areas had banned
new housing, and industry would not locate in the area
due to the shortages. Trucks were delivering water to
residents. Lenhardt hung tough. He told them to build
their own systems. Detroit, he said, was not going to
sell them water that would facilitate the suburban exodus.
firestorm ensued. Business, civic and suburban leaders
as well as the three Detroit dailies began a several years
long review of how to best serve the water needs of the
region. A six-county committee of political leaders, aided
by the National Sanitation Foundation and the Detroit
Metropolitan Regional Planning Commission (later SEMCOG)
concluded that the City of Detroit should build the water
system. Summarizing the prevailing view at the time, the
Detroit Times editorialized that the reason for
unification of the water supply in Detroits department
is because the Detroit system has the economic base
its present facilities and paying customers to
finance expansion. No other apparent combination of communities
has such resources.
pressure from the combined force of these interests, Mayor
Albert Cobo eased Lenhardt out and installed a manager
who would build a regional system.
the 1960s similar pressures came from Oakland and Macomb
counties as they expanded. They faced development bans
from the state due to limited sewer systems, so Detroit
provided them sewerage services. Detroit also financed
a new water treatment plant off Lake Huron to supply the
growing northern suburbs of both counties, as well as
the greater Flint area.
after these facilities were in operation, Oakland County
Drain Commissioner George Kuhn began a 20-year campaign
to take them from Detroit. In the 1990s alone, at least
six regionalization bills were introduced in Lansing at
Kuhns urging. Yet Oakland County communities, evaluating
their own interests, ignored Kuhn, deciding that it was
easier, safer and cheaper to buy Detroit water than to
build their own systems. Now, the payback for Detroit
providing this option to the suburbs is an attempt to
take it from the city without compensation.
latest effort is House Bill 5788. Introduced by state
Rep. Leon Drolet (R-Clinton Township), it is touted as
merely giving more suburban say in operating the Detroit
Department of Water and Sewerage. Much more is in the
passed into law, HB 5788 would require taking title of
all Detroit Water & Sewerage Department (DWSD) treatment
plants, booster stations and transmission mains from Detroit.
Victor Mercado, DWSDs newly appointed director,
estimates this infrastructure to be worth $6 billion to
$8 billion. Where would the money come from to compensate
Detroit for losing the system it financed and built?
of the takeover say little or no payment would be required.
They argue that money paid over the years for service
entitles the suburbs to take control of the system. Unfortunately
for them, legal precedent indicates otherwise. In a case
comparable to the issue here, Illinois courts rejected
the argument that Chicagos suburbs could become
owners of that citys water system simply by buying
water from Chicago.
U.S. Supreme Court also rejected such arguments years
ago in another utility case, Board of Public Utility Commissioners
vs. New York Telephone Company. During a recent public
hearing, Mercado called the bill an illegal, unconstitutional
taking of property. In that regard, he has an ally
in Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeffrey Wright, who
agreed that takeover of the system would require billions
of dollars in compensation.
District Judge John Feikens has also weighed in on the
matter. Because of persistent federal water quality violations
that came to a head during the late 1970s, Feikens has
overseen department operations for more than three decades.
judge rejects claims that the suburbs have the right to
seize control of the system.
determined that Detroit was going to administer DWSD and
that is still true today and will continue to be true,
dismisses Feikens position as an overreach of his
authority and believes that the federal judge cannot stop
the takeover. Nor is he convinced that the takeover would
be unconstitutional, pointing out the state House Legislative
Analysis Section, which considers pending legislation
for lawmakers, is split on the issue. It can be argued,
says Drolet, that because the state charters all cities,
it can exercise the authority to pursue takeovers as it
sees fit. I guess the courts will have to decide,
is undoubtedly true. If the takeover bill passes, years
of litigation will surely follow, with ratepayers and
state taxpayers footing the bill.
questions surrounding the bill arent the only cause
5788 creates a 125-member regional assembly of municipal
representatives that incorporates a new regional system,
sets water and wastewater rates, approves expansion and
financing plans. Each citys vote is weighted based
on water usage. This group would take title of Detroits
addition, a second body would be appointed directly by
the counties with authority to hire personnel, control
capital assets and enter into contracts. It will be, in
effect, a bicameral legislature. A good way to run the
state, but probably not the best way to run the most important
public health agency in Michigan. Critics of this plan
worry that, with great areas of overlapping decision making,
the system will be plagued with conflict.
all this into account, its ironic that one of the
primary issues driving the regionalization effort is the
cry that suburbanites are being gouged by the City of
Detroit. What many customers dont realize is that
much of their bill has nothing to do with rates charged
by the Detroit. Take, for example, the city of Warren,
which has been a lead advocate of a takeover.
January 2002, Detroit charged Warren $5.86 per thousand
cubic feet of water, equal to about 7,500 gallons. Warren
in turn charged its residents $13.14 for that water, a
125 percent increase; thats according to the 2002-2003
Water Department report on budgets and rates prepared
for the city by Black and Veatch, an international engineering
consulting firm that specializes in water-rate analysis.
cities that buy Detroit water double, triple and even
quadruple the water charges to their residents. The average
markup is 146 percent on water rates and 168 percent on
sewer rates. That means most of the money
collected in the region for water bills stays in the local
communities that bill the residents. It does not go to
the rates Detroit does charge are a relative bargain.
According to Black and Veatch, of the 20 largest U.S.
cities, Detroits rates are the fifth lowest.
has largely been overlooked by the media as debate of
the takeover legislation raged during a series of public
hearings held in recent weeks.
commentary has been a series of stories in the Detroit
News. Particularly explosive was a front-page story that
said the Detroit water department was owed $59 million
from city residents and businesses in uncollected bills.
attention-grabbing piece prominently featured the views
of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who declared
that Detroit was ripping off the suburbs by not collecting
the money. A Warren official agreed.
those claims, the article itself made note of the fact
that the citys fund is separate and the whole operation
is independently audited, ensuring that the suburbs arent
saddled with Detroits debt.
Mercado recently pointed out, the story completely failed
to mention that nearly half of the $59 million debt can
be attributed to abandoned residential and commercial
properties going back as far as 20 years. The only reason
these debts remained on the books was that the city, hoping
to eventually collect, didnt follow the standard
accounting practice of writing off bad debt. As a result
of the bad press, that practice is about to change.
article also failed to point out that, according to city
records, much of that $59 million isnt owed by deadbeats,
but rather by people who are simply late in paying
their bills. In fact, about 30 percent of the total debt
can be attributed to bills that are only one day to three
months in arrears. These bills, say city officials, will
be collected, as is the case every year.
impression, however, is one of a bureaucracy gripped by
dysfunction an image the bills supporters
hope to capitalize on.
the Legislature entering a lame-duck session, Drolet says
there is a ways to go before I feel secure that
the bill has majority support. He said House Speaker
Rick Johnson has been cooperative but has
not promised to make HB 5788 a high priority. The bill,
however, appears to have the support of one powerful ally:
Susan Shafer of Gov. John Englers office says her
boss supports the bill.
things can happen in lame-duck sessions. Now is the time
for those suburban residents and communities who have
benefited from the Detroit system to go beyond sensational
headlines and take a realistic look at the financial,
legal and ethical implications of what this bill proposes.
An author of two books investigating the influence of
the political right, Russ Bellant is a former Detroit
water plant operator who now oversees apprenticeship programs
for the city.