Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
Week 71 of the occupation of Detroit
August 23-30, 2014
Decisions about the future of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department are being made behind closed doors. On Monday, Nolan Finley of the Detroit News described a deal “to turn over ownership and operation” to a regional authority. Finley said that “deal had been hung up for months over suburban concerns that Detroit’s demand for an annual premium to bolster its general fund would send water rates soaring.” Later he noted, “The suburbs were also concerned about taking on legacy costs and absorbing Detroit’s high rate of unpaid water bills.”
According to Finley, these issues have been resolved and a new authority is in the works. Key to this would be an agreement that the authority would pay the city $50 million yearly for 40 years. Suburban “residents will not pay a dime more than they are now to cover the payment to Detroit.” This is because the $50 million “could be recovered through efficiencies gained by better management practices and by refinancing the debt.” Also suburban customers would never have more than a 4 percent rate hike a year. Detroiters, apparently, have no such guarantee.
Shortly after this story appeared, the judge overseeing the process, US District Judge Sean Cox, denied a deal was “imminent.” He said, “ I wish to state that parties to mediation have not reached any definitive agreements, although it is fair to say all parties are demonstrating good faith and responsible leadership.”
Cox said, “I will definitively state that these discussions do not contemplate a proposal for the transfer of any funds to the city’s general fund.”
The reality here is the deal is coming to a head. It is only the details that are being decided.
Meanwhile, these statements reveal that the future of the DWSD is guided by the most crude and base concerns of suburban customers. Why shouldn’t an asset that has been built, maintained, and supported by the citizens of Detroit for more than a century be a source of funds for the general operations of the city?
The whole point of a regional authority is to understand that our fates are linked, not only to the natural ecosystem, but also to each other. This effort by suburban leadership to separate themselves from the residents of Detroit feeds racial tension and division. It does a disservice to the future of all of us.
Almost every independent analysis of the water system points out that currently Detroiters are paying more than they should for water and suburbanites are paying less than they should. No suburban resident pays Detroit. Detroit only sells to municipal customers. It cannot make a profit on water.
The suburban leadership of many municipalities use water rates as a source for their own budgets. Rather than going to voters for tax increases, they tack on hidden fees to the water bills. Complaints about high water bills by our neighbors should be directed at their own leadership. These leaders are more than willing to play to the racist stereotypes underlying the complaints of high bills.
Further the old smoke and mirrors trick of claiming we are going to spend a lot of money, but it wont cost us anything, is invoked with the claim that the $50 million will be recouped through “efficiencies.”
We are already suffering form some of these so-called efficiencies. As suburbanites clean up from the recent floods, they should remember that much of this problem was caused by a drastic cut back in workers at the DWSD. Floodwaters know no boundaries.
The protection of our water requires guidance, ecological sensitivity, and financial support. Without these, we are all in danger. Suburban neighbors who understand this should repudiate any deal that does not stress our shared responsibility to provide water to all and our shared fate as protectors of a fragile ecosystem.