Highland Park — A group of residents rallied Thursday to protest a court order that will force residents to pay millions to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for past unpaid bills.

They blame city leaders for failing to make timely payments after Detroit began supplying water to Highland Park in 2012.

The cash-strapped Detroit enclave owed more than $18 million in unpaid water and sewer bills as of October 2013, and that figure has climbed to at least $20 million since then, city officials say.

Highland Park had its own water plant, but shut it down in 2012 because of maintenance issues and other problems. Detroit’s water department then began supplying water to the city at a cost of about $80,000 a month.

Also in 2013, the state financial review team found the city had a two-year delay in sending water bills to its residents, according to its report to the state treasurer.

Highland Park officials say the money will have to come from a property tax levy, which doesn’t sit well with about a dozen residents who gathered on the steps of City Hall on Thursday.

“Now they’re talking about putting this on our winter property tax bills in December,” said Marian Kramer, who’s also a member of the Highland Park Human Rights Coalition, which organized the event. “I’m not paying them. I’m not paying them because I don’t know where the money is going. They haven’t been using the money to pay the water bill like they’re supposed to.”

Christopher Woodard, Highland Park City Council president and mayor pro-tem, told The Detroit News on Thursday a court is forcing the city to pay a judgment through a property tax levy.

“Some particulars in terms of how it can be done are still being worked out,” Woodard said. “There are negotiations on several fronts going on in terms of how it’ll be implemented.

“But the suit’s judgment compels the city to do it. It’s not something the city would do on its own volition.”

The city has struggled with its finances for years. It had been in financial emergency from 2001-09 and a state-appointed financial review team declared another financial emergency in the city in April of last year.

In May 2014, the city chose mediation as its option to deal with its financial emergency. In other words, Highland Park’s government and the city’s creditors would try to work out a settlement on its debts.

But this past April, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge ruled the city has to pay the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department what it owes. The judge also ordered the water department to refrain from shutting off residents’ service because of unpaid bills.

Woodard said the delay in getting bills out to residents has been addressed. The council has hired a city administrator and the city has also hired a company to handle billing for water service, he said.

“We’re now billing on a monthly basis rather than every three months,” he said. “I think certainly by the first of the year, we should be back on track with the billing and meters being read.”

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