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Massive changes in store for Detroit's water system

Photo courtesty of Birmingham Public Schools

Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department will slash its workforce in a drastic overhaul set to take place over at least five years.

The move comes as city and department officials move tostem soaring water rates as they deal with rising maintenance and operation costs.

City and department officials say they’ll move to contract out most of the department’s non-core functions.

Through outsourcing, layoffs, and a sweeping restructuring, the water department’s total staff is set to shrink by about 80%, from 1,978 to 374.

The announcement comes after officials commissioned St. Paul, Minnesota-based EMA Consulting to do a 90-day assessment of Detroit’s water system, which serves millions of people in southeast Michigan.

Department director Sue McCormick admits the workforce cuts can seem staggering. But she insists that can be managed through new technology, system re-design, and having the remaining employees do more.

“Much of what we’re doing is going to be accomplished because of this flexibility in jobs, and the ability for people to do a broader set of work,” McCormick said. “But certainly a lot of it comes with addressing some of the system issues we have today.”

Officials say the plan is an “evolving process” with “lots of moving parts,” and will take place gradually over five years. In the next six months, they plan to start re-designing jobs, and identifying work that can be outsourced.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing says if the plan moves along successfully, it could be used as a model for other city departments.

Detroit City Councilman Gary Brown echoed that. “Every department head--the chief of police, the fire department--will look at this model, and find ways to deliver the services they deliver in a more efficient way,” Brown said.

Bing wouldn’t say whether this will affect existing union contracts

John Riehl, who represents water department workers at AFSCME Local 207, calls the plan nothing more than transparent union-busting. He also says many of the department’s current troubles stem from understaffing, and officials are “dreaming” if they think they can run the department with so few workers.

The restructuring plan already has approval from the department’s seven-member board, which includes representatives from Detroit’s suburban water customers.

Detroit’s water department has a long, sordid history of corruption. It’s the focal point of the upcoming federal case against former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Prosecutors say Kilpatrick, former DWSD head Victor Mercado, and others ran the department as a kind of criminal enterprise.

The department has been under a federal consent decree for wastewater violations since 1977.

Last fall, U.S. District Judge Sean Cox told city officials they could ignore the city charter, local laws and even union contracts in their effort to meet requirements of the Clean Water Act.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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