Dozens of municipal officials and metro area residents voiced their displeasure to the Detroit City Council last week over proposed double-digit water rate increases expected to take effect July 1.
George Constance, the Warren city attorney, said he thinks Detroit could find a better way to pay for the improvements than the proposed 13.9-percent increase proposed for Warren.
"We cannot sustain the kind of double-digit increases you have handed us for the past two years," Constance said, noting that Warren has seen increases of nearly 25 percent during that time.
The Detroit council and officials at the city Water and Sewerage Department said they empathize with consumers. But they said the rate increases are needed to pay for state and federal infrastructure upgrades and security measures that have been mandated since Sept. 11.
The city's wastewater treatment facility is under the supervision of U.S. District Judge John Feikens, who is overseeing the improvements. If the rate increases aren't approved, and the water department cannot meet its mandates, there is a danger that the department could fall under court control.
"Right now, Judge Feikens just has jurisdiction on the wastewater side," said Gary Fujita, interim deputy director of the Water and Sewerage Department. "But if we didn't have the resources to properly operate, maintain and provide safe water, I'm sure that it would just be a matter of time before the water system could possibly come under Judge Feikens' jurisdiction."
The proposed rate increases, which would be reflected in consumers' August bills, would mean an average increase of 13.5 percent for Detroit residents, and 15.2 percent for suburban customers. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department provides water to 125 communities in southeast Michigan from as far north as Flint, and as far south as Monroe.
In the 1970s and 80s, local governments could rely on the state and federal government to provide up to 80 percent of the money needed for capital improvements. Those grants have dried up, forcing consumers to pay the tab.
In a statement supporting the increases, Feikens wrote: "No longer can the people of southeast Michigan look to the federal or state government for grants to finance the necessary capital improvements to the treatment plants and to the infrastructure. These costs must be borne by the users of the system. The health and welfare of the people of this region require no less."
Likewise, Kevin Roney, public utilities manager for the City of Livonia, and David Flaisher, West Bloomfield supervisor, have asked to meet with members of the Board of Commissioners of the water department to discuss what can be done to prevent such large increases.
Detroit City Council member Sheila Cockrel agreed that an explanation of the increases is needed so consumers can understand what they are paying for. She also said alternative funding needs to be found.
"I don't think we can and solely should rely on rate increases to fund the federal and state mandates that are put on the DWSD," Cockrel said. "This is not a DWSD or southeast Michigan issue only. This is a national issue."