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Council president questions water department layoffs

Christine Ferretti The Detroit News

Detroit — City Council President Brenda Jones said she’s seeking answers from the city’s water department as it continues to downsize staff.

Under its “optimization initiative,” the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s staffing has gone from 2,200 employees to 1,100, officials said.

Jones on Tuesday said she’s learned that about 100 water department employees will be cut in upcoming layoffs, including a couple dozen water chemists.

Jones said she plans to convene an expanded committee session to get an update from the water department on its staff reduction.

“I don’t know how it’s affecting what happens with our Water and Sewerage Department because nothing is coming to council,” she said. “We don’t have the opportunity to ask the questions that we need to ask when it comes to DWSD.”

Michael Mulholland, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 207, said most of the staff reductions have taken place over the last year. Approximately 100 water department workers are expected to face layoffs Friday.

“It’s a horrible blow to many families in the Detroit area,” he said. “As if Detroiters and our neighborhoods don’t have instability and poverty. Now it’s going to be greatly increased for the members.”

Jones shared her frustrations Tuesday, noting contracts and other Detroit Water and Sewerage Department changes take place without oversight of the city’s legislative body and are concerning.

In an email to The Detroit News, the water department’s chief operating officer Cheryl Porter said DWSD has gone from 257 titles to 57 and halved its number of employees under its optimization plan.

During this period, she said, DWSD has won the National Association of Clean Water Utilities Silver Award for its environmental compliance.

Porter said the department has eliminated duplicative functions and, in this case, is consolidating laboratories performing similar functions. The consolidation will align operations with feedback from sample testing to ensure adjustments are made promptly to maintain the current improved compliance record.

The Great Lakes Water Authority, which will handle 3 million suburban customers, is set to start running the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department on Jan. 1.

Detroit transferred its water system to the new authority last year, partly to raise money for infrastructure. The 40-year deal pays the city $50 million per year and allows Detroit to maintain ownership of the system, which has 3,000 miles of pipes and 2,000 water main breaks yearly.

The authority was finalized in June, establishing two independent entities. The Detroit Water Department serves the city while the GLWA, which is run by a separate director, leases and runs what is not the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department system outside Detroit city limits.