A draft bill would create an inter-city authority to supersede the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department.
The beleaguered Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is facing a state bill that could strip the utility of its recently restored managerial autonomy. If passed, the legislation would establish a new regional water and sewer authority that would absorb the DWSD.
Michigan state representative Kurt Heise (R-20th District) introduced a bill in late January calling for the creation of a new regional water authority to oversee the DWSD’s assets. One representative in each of the 126 municipal governments in the DWSD’s service area would be appointed to the authority’s board, giving Detroit the same representation as each of the DWSD’s suburban customers. The board would also have a 13-member executive committee, of which Detroit’s representative would be a permanent member. Detroit would maintain ownership of its water and wastewater treatment facilities and infrastructure. The DWSD had no comment on the bill, and a department spokeswoman told AWI that DWSD’s main concern is its internal reforms.
The DWSD is struggling after years of financial troubles, ethics scandals and population decline. In addition, the utility is still involved in a 36-year-old lawsuit with the EPA due to an environmental consent decree. The DWSD has been under the jurisdiction of a federal judge since 1977, and a new judge, Sean Cox, was appointed to the case in 2010. Former Ann Arbor, Mich., public services director Sue McCormick was appointed DWSD director in January 2012.
In August 2012, the department hired EMA, Inc. to evaluate its operations, and the firm recommended that DWSD eliminate 81 percent of its workforce. The contract to hire EMA to help implement the cuts was rejected by the Detroit City Council, which must approve contracts over $2 million.
The DWSD could side-step the city council by bidding out all its proposed work in $2-million-sized pieces, but such an approach would mean writing and approving dozens of contracts. Heise, who was director of the environment department of Wayne County, Mich., from 2002 to 2009 and oversaw one of the DWSD’s wastewater treatment plants, said his bill is meant to end the political impasse by forcing action or replacing the current arrangement outright.
“It is a firewall against the current state of affairs. If Judge Cox cannot or will not make this happen, then my bill is ready to go,” Heise told AWI. “I also believe that, in the long run, it is the best option for the region.”
Heise introduced a similar bill in 2011 that died in committee, but he said times have changed. Democrats from Detroit are open to the bill as a way to protect the DWSD, he added.
“They’re trying to protect DWSD. They’re trying to negotiate a better deal for DWSD so that it does not become a pawn – a bargaining chip – in the financial bankruptcy and financial reorganization of the City of Detroit.”