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Allocation in proposed state budget would help Highland Park clear water debt

Andrew Jameson
Wikimedia commons

Lawmakers have set aside money in the proposed state budget that would help Highland Park with its crushing water debt.

The tiny, low-income city of 8,900 residents owes the Great Lakes Water Authority more than $20 million after not paying water bills for years. Highland Park officials claimed the city was overcharged. Years of litigation effectively ended last month after the Michigan Supreme Court declined to hear the city’s case, leaving a lower court’s judgment that Highland Park must repay the debt in place.

The two sides are set to start mediation next week. They have until the end of the month to figure out exactly how much Highland Park owes, and how it will pay.

State Senator Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) represents Highland Park. She said the proposed allocation would help Highland Park with its immediate needs, but the city needs longer-term help.

“We need to look at this holistically,” Chang said. “We need to make sure that we're looking at not just this current situation, but also the longer-term infrastructure needs. And we can't separate the two, in my view.”

Chang said that includes leaky pipes, and an estimated $100 million state consent order to replace the city’s lead lines.

“My primary goal is making sure that we don't put this on the backs of Highland Park residents, because we need to make sure that folks are able to stay in their homes and able to thrive,” she said.

The budget isn’t finalized yet. But State Senator Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, called the allocation a “no-brainer.” She said the city can’t live without water, nor can its residents afford a massive tax increase to clear the debt.

“They need the support. There was an issue with the prior administrations not paying the water bill,” Santana said. “That's not the fault of the people who are there currently.

“All we can do is move forward as a state. And part of that moving forward is making sure that Highland Park has what it needs to be sustainable, and make sure that its 8900 residents can move forward in their lives as well.”

Santana said Governor Gretchen Whitmer requested that the Legislature put $100 million in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services budget for water infrastructure and other related issues, but the committee carved out the allocation for Highland Park.

So far, Whitmer has remained non-committal on the question of Highland Park’s water debt, which city officials say it simply cannot afford. The state is reviewing the city’s request for a financial review, after Highland Park officials voted to ask the state for an expedited bankruptcy proceeding.

This week, Mayor Glenda McDonald said she would be forced to declare a state of emergency after the Highland Park City Council rejected her request to retain counsel for court-ordered mediation with the GLWA. McDonald could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

The issue of Highland Park’s water debt has become a regional one. Suburban communities also served by the GLWA, particularly in Macomb County, have rebelled against paying higher rates to subsidize Highland Park’s non-payment, and using $25 million in state funds to the GLWA to help clear the debt. They believe that money should be used to reimburse those communities.

In a statement issued Thursday, Macomb County Commissioner Candice Miller said of the budget allocation: “I applaud the state Legislature for stepping up financially to help with this issue. I also think the Governor’s Office and Treasury Department understand that this is a systemic issue in Highland Park.

“Highland Park needs to drop further litigation and be a willing partner to resolve this issue. They need a plan going forward to pay their water and sewer bills. They also need to invest in their infrastructure since over half of their bill is because of leaks in their system.”

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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