Highland Park to court: Reconsider water bill decision

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Highland Park plans to ask the state appeals court to rethink its ruling that Metro Detroit’s regional water authority can collect more than $19 million in unpaid water bills from the city.

Highland Park’s city attorney will file a motion to ask the Michigan Court of Appeals to reconsider its decision, officials said Friday.

“The mayor has directed me to fight for our residents and businesses,” said Terry Ford, the city’s attorney, in a statement. “We will be asking the court to reconsider our argument.”

On Tuesday, the appeals court ruled the Great Lakes Water Authority, a spinoff from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that provides water and waste water services to 127 municipalities in seven southeast Michigan counties, can collect on the debt.

“If this court were to accept Highland Park’s interpretation of the federal statute, the city of Detroit would be left with no avenue by which to enforce its judgment and Highland Park would be relieved of its obligations,” the appeals court judges said in a 3-0 ruling.

“This would be contrary to this court’s pronouncement that ‘municipal corporations have the same obligation as any person or body corporate to satisfy judgments rendered against them.’ ”

The city of 11,000 residents that is landlocked by Detroit has struggled with its finances and been in arrears on its water bills for years. Three years ago, a state-appointed financial review team declared a financial emergency in Highland Park, which also was deemed to be in financial emergency between 2001 and 2009.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, the entity that operated the authority’s water system at the time, sued Highland Park over the unpaid water and sewer services in 2013.

In April 2015, a judge ruled the city had to pay the water utility and Highland Park officials appealed his decision.

To offset Highland Park’s shortfall, the authority’s other community customers have had to pay higher sewer rates. In May, the authority’s board approved an increase in the average sewage service charge of about 4.9 percent.

“We are pleased with the court’s ruling, and ready to move in our efforts to collect the debt owed, helping relieve our current, paying customer communities of this financial burden,” said William Wolfson, general counsel of the Great Lakes Water Authority, in a Thursday statement.

“While litigation is always a method of last resort, after repeatedly attempting to work in good faith with Highland Park to focus on and to resolve its debt, this ruling affirms our legal position.”