Detroit Area leaders discuss city's water problems

By Corey Williams

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- The future of Detroit's water system was debated last week during a forum attended by city and county leaders at the North American International Auto Show, where some pushed for regionalization of the system amid complaints about its management.

During the forum at the Cobo Center, Mayor Dave Bing, Oakland County's L. Brooks Patterson, Wayne's Robert Ficano and Macomb's Mark Hackel told a group of business and community leaders that regional cooperation is necessary to help move the area forward during tough times. But they couldn't agree on how to manage the water department, which provides services to 4 million people in the city and surrounding suburbs.

Detroit, which runs the department, often has been criticized over how the rates are set and how the massive system is managed. City officials have said rate increases are necessary for repairs and maintenance, but many in the suburbs have accused the city of overcharging them.

A bill was introduced in the state House this week by a Republican Wayne County lawmaker that would create a nine-person board responsible for, among other things, setting water and sewerage rates. Four permanent seats would be set aside for Detroit and the three adjacent counties, and the other five members would be elected from communities using the system.

Council members have said they will fight any efforts to take the water department out of the city's hands.

"I don't think the suburbs want to own the system," Patterson said. "All I'm suggesting is, why don't we set up a management team to break up the monopoly and let the suburbs and the city have some say so in management, and Detroit can maintain ownership."

Bing acknowledged that the system has not been run well in the past.

"I'm not going to try to defend the management of the water system," he said. "I think everybody is jumping to conclusions without having a lot of factual data. We've got to look at the data and let the data drive the decisions."

The City Council approved rate hikes last summer for suburban and Detroit customers. The average increase for customers outside the city was expected to range from 8.8 percent to 9.7 percent. The average jump in Detroit was about 8 percent.

Outside the increased water bills is the specter of wrongdoing on the part of jailed ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Victor Mercado, who ran the department from 2002 to 2008 and is accused of helping rig contracts.

Kilpatrick, one of his former aides, Mercado and Detroit businessman Bobby Ferguson were indicted last month on corruption charges.

"The city of Detroit has nothing to do with the former mayor," said Hackel, who supports Bing and his efforts.

Bing, who was elected in 2009 to his first full term as mayor, should be given the time to set up an "acceptable and transparent" water system, Ficano added.

Published: Tue, Jan 25, 2011


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