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Takeover of city’s water department on hold

Council says wait until EPA review is complete

By Victor Billione Walker
Special to the Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — Detroit City Council delayed a vote on a no-bid contract Nov. 13 that would take control of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) out of public hands and into the control of the privately owned EMA, Inc.

More than 100 citizens from across the Southeastern Michigan region and from as far as Toledo, Ohio filled council chambers in opposition of the contract that Councilwoman Brenda Jones categorized as a “take over.”

The $48 million plan would privatize DWSD and eliminate more than 80 percent of its current workforce.

The matter has been in committee since Oct. 10 after being approved by the DSWD board of directors, but there is no indication that Council will vote on it in the near future.

On Oct. 12, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requested 45 days to review the impact such staff reductions could have on water quality. The review is expected to be complete Dec. 1.

“Respect the citizens who own the water department by waiting until the EPA has done its review,” was Councilwoman JoAnn Watson’s advice to those pushing the privatization of DWSD.

Catherine Philips, staff representative of AFSCME Council 25, said, “There is nothing wrong with DWSD that the department cannot fix itself.”

There are more than 160 communities in the area that use water from DWSD.

“This is not only affects Detroit,” said Detroit resident Kevin Haywood, “it affects the entire Southeastern Michigan region.”

Sandy Bihn, executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper, Inc., based in Toledo, argued this issue is even bigger than Southeastern Michigan because water from the Detroit system comes downstream and impacts water quality and treatment costs in Ohio.

Some say the city’s poor management of services and current fiscal crisis makes the sale of its biggest asset necessary and urgent, but Watson says nothing has happened to move on an immediate implementation of the contract.

“This is a scratch and grab move we ought not even consider,” Waston said. “The (DSWD) board ought not have approved this.” According to Watson, DSWD is not in violation of anything nor is it impacted by the city’s financial issues.

Susan Ryan, recording secretary of AFSCME Local 207 who gave testimony at the session, said, “This is a plan to dismantle DSWD to create the need for contractors to be paid big bucks through privatization.”

Tia Lebherz, organizer for Food & Water watch who also attended the Council session, said a privatized water department would not be accountable to ratepayers.

“They could increase rates and pocket the difference,” Lebherz said.

Seeing the lack of support for the contract, Councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins pushed for a vote in an effort to move past the issue and onto other matters.

Council Pro Tem Gary Brown agreed that a vote should be taken so that DSWD could know definitively how the body felt. Brown said, “If the city doesn’t get a grip on its finances, it could face bankruptcy.”

Theo Broughton, a Detroit resident, said she was tired of being told the city is going to run out of money and that all of the city assets should be sold. She described it as “a trick used to scare us” into bad deals.

“If you leave it up to outsiders to run DWSD, you better stop drinking faucet water,” Broughton warned.

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