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Water authority asks for Snyder's "personal involvement" to resolve Highland Park bills

Highland Park municipal building
City of Highland Park

Southeast Michigan’s new regional water authority is asking for Governor Snyder’s “personal intercession and involvement” to resolve a billing dispute with the city of Highland Park.

Highland Park now owes the Great Lakes Water Authority nearly $30 million in water and sewer bills.

In a letter to the Governor last month, the GLWA board said the Authority’s other customer communities are growing “concerned and frustrated” as they’re forced to pick up Highland Park’s tab.

The GLWA, a product of Detroit’s bankruptcy case, assumed operations of the regional water system at the start of this year. It also assumed the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s customer debts.

DWSD had sued Highland Park over the debts, and in 2015 won a $19 million judgment. But Highland Park appealed, and DWSD and now GLWA are barred from trying to collect while the appeal is pending.

William Wolfson, the GLWA’s legal counsel, says that in the meantime the debt has continued to grow. And he says it’s unlikely Highland Park can repay it without state help.

“I think that everyone in this state knows that Highland Park is a poor community. There’s a $30 million arrearage for a community of 10,000. That’s a fairly substantial amount,” Wolfson said.

Most of that is for delinquent sewer bills dating back a number of years. But Highland Park also owes more than $3 million for water bills since 2012.

“[A]t the request of your administration, DWSD began providing potable water to Highland Park on a short-term emergency basis while repairs were to be made to Highland Park’s water plant,” the GLWA board says in its letter to Snyder.

“Unfortunately, after emergency water service had begun, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality determined that the Highland Park’s plant could not be repaired and ordered it closed. To date, DWSD and now GLWA continues to provide water and sewer services, but have not received any payments” since June 2012 (Highland Park has also experienced serious water quality issues since that time).

Highland Park is also under a state-mandated plan of adjustment per Michigan’s emergency manager law. Snyder declared a financial emergency there in 2014.

“Given the state’s involvement with Highland Park’s situation, we thought that it was appropriate the Governor be the one to address it,” Wolfson said.

Wolfson says despite the litigation, the GLWA and Highland Park have been cooperating to address “operational issues” with the city’s water infrastructure. The board’s letter also notes that DWSD and Highland Park officials had hashed out terms of a settlement for the delinquent bills in 2015, but the state “interceded and indicated it would not accept the settlement terms.”

The letter concludes: “We ask for your personal intercession and involvement in working with the GLWA and the City of Highland Park to develop a long-term sustainable solution that benefits not only the parties…but the 40% of Michigan’s population who are served as GLWA customers.”

As of this week, the GLWA says Snyder has not responded. A spokesman for the Governor could not immediately answer questions about whether Snyder had received the letter, and planned to respond.

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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