Downriver joins GLWA mutiny over disputed Highland Park debt

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Taylor — Leaders of 20 communities in the Downriver area of Wayne County voted last week to withhold the portion of their water bills owing to Highland Park's disputed $54 million debt to the Great Lakes Water Authority.

They join 18 communities in the Conference of Western Wayne and at least four in Macomb County refusing to continue to pay for service they did not use. 

The Downriver Community Conference took its vote on March 24.

The Downriver resolution asks that its communities be held harmless on the existing debt and that the state reimburse the $14 million they have paid in. It also calls for an end to the mechanism whereby bad debt is spread to remaining ratepayers in the regional water authority.

The Great Lakes Water Authority has said it needs the funds to operate, and that bad debt has to be spread among its remaining customers.

The Highland Park Water Treatment Plant on March 2, 2022.

Much like the Conference of Western Wayne's March 11 resolution, Downriver pulls from a letter sent by the Great Lakes Water Authority to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asking the state to resolve the matter. 

Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy has said that "It’s important that the parties involved work together to find a resolution to this situation as quickly as possible." A March 2 letter from the Michigan Treasury to GLWA and Highland Park leaders encouraged them to do the same.

The water authority sent the letter to call for backup. What it got, instead, is a mutiny that's moved into two counties. If the western Wayne and Downriver communities represented by the resolutions follow through in withholding money, that would mean 38 of the authority's 87 communities are no longer contributing to the disputed arrearage.

The GLWA letter spelled out how much that community had paid on the debt since November 2012, when Highland Park was forced to the Detroit water system on an emergency basis, due to cloudy water at its now-defunct power plant.

A decade later, the emergency continues to the chagrin of Highland Park. Over that time, GLWA says, Highland Park has only paid 1% of its water bill and 50% of its sewer bill.

Highland Park argued it was overcharged for years to the tune of $13 million.

Highland Park officials say the city was vindicated last year by a Wayne County Circuit Court ruling that found its debts were "subsumed" in a settlement granting Highland Park $1 million from Detroit.

Highland Park says its future is a return to the water independence it knew prior to 2012, and that staying on the GLWA system is not "cost-effective."

That case dates back to 2014, and the ruling has been appealed. And the appeal has led to more questions among GLWA communities.

"GLWA does not view the recent actions taken by member partner communities related to Highland Park bad debt recovery as a mutiny," Suzanne Coffey, interim CEO of GLWA, said in a statement. "We view them as a significant opportunity to engage the state of Michigan in the resolution of this issue. Given that this is the end of March, and our new fiscal year and the corresponding charges do not go into effect until July 1st, we believe that if the State becomes an active participant in the negotiations with GLWA and Highland Park now, there will be no need for any type of escrow accounts to be created.

"A timely resolution will benefit all those in the GLWA service area, which includes nearly 40 percent of the state on the water side, and nearly 30 percent of the state on the sewer side."

Though their communities had been paying on the debt for years, some political leaders were shocked to learn their residents had spent so much paying for water and sewer service in another community. 

"I've not heard of paying a court judgment while you're appealing it," said Kurt Heise, Plymouth Township supervisor. "I don't like having to pay for another community's or entity's judgment in court, and that's really what's happened here." 

State Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, told The Detroit News Thursday she's penned a letter to the Great Lakes Water Authority, encouraging it to "come up with a different way for Highland Park to pay their bills — not on the backs of my constituents, who have paid over a million dollars."

"My constituents should not be picking up the unpaid water and sewer bills for Highland Park residents. And they're pretty upset about it," State Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, told The Detroit News Thursday.