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Detroit approves new regional water authority

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

The Detroit City Council has approved the city’s participation in the Great Lakes Water Authority.

The city of Detroit currently owns and operates most of southeast Michigan’s regional water system.

The 40-year deal lets the city retain ownership of all the water system’s assets, and Detroit keep control of day-to-day operations within city limits.

But a new Great Lakes Water Authority takes control of operations outside the city. It will lease the regional assets for $50 million a year.

Council member Scott Benson said those payments will translate into $2 billion in upgrades for Detroit’s degraded water infrastructure—and much-needed jobs for Detroiters.

Benson added that with emergency manager Kevyn Orr in charge, this is about the best the city can expect.

“To me, in the end, this is the best deal we have on the table,” Benson said.  “And it gives us the ability to chart our own course for the city of Detroit.”

But critics question whether the deal is as good for Detroit as advertised.

Mary Sheffield was one of only two Council members to vote against the GLWA. She says the public has been misled into thinking the lease payment represents new funding for the system.

“There’s a reallocation of the funds to the Detroit regional pipes, but there’s no new money coming into the system,” Sheffield said.

Sheffield also expressed concern about the fact that payments made to the city for use of the system won’t be adjusted for inflation over the course of 40 years.

The authority is backed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who--along with Governor Snyder and the leaders of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties--signed a memorandum of understanding creating the deal last week.

Duggan praised the Council’s vote, calling it “the right decision.” He had warned that without a deal like the GLWA, emergency manager Kevyn Orr would have moved to privatize the system through the bankruptcy process.

But some critics fear the GLWA still leaves the door open to future privatization. Some also argue that the deal skirts the Detroit city charter, which requires a public vote to approve any asset sale or transfer.

With Detroit’s approval, the GLWA now needs approval from just one of the three counties party to the agreement to move forward. According its articles of incorporation, the deal is supposed to be finalized by October 10th.

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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