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Bankole: A year later, GLWA wins over critics

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

In the year since beginning formal operations, the Great Lakes Water Authority has evolved from a controversial, skeptical deal to an example of regional collaboration between such divergent partners as the city of Detroit and Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, banking on it to provide safe and affordable water for their customers.

The authority, which was created in 2014 as part of the proceedings to end the record-setting municipal bankruptcy of Detroit, officially took off two years later on Jan. 1, 2016.

However, it took a lot of arm-twisting and rigorous public debate among the partners to get it to the point where it is today, serving 127 municipalities in the region.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who was a holdout in the regional deal while hammering for transparency in how the authority would go about its business, says he is now satisfied with the direction of the GLWA.

“We now have much greater oversight and accountability in this regional asset,” Hackel said. “While much work still remains, we need to work on long-term regional solutions that leverage infrastructure investments that reduce operational costs to all ratepayers.”

Hackel said Macomb County is “committed to working with our regional partners to further the GLWA improvements and in achieving promised operational savings and rate stability.”

The push for openness from the start in the authority’s deliberative process was important, he added.

“My issue with the Great Lakes Water Authority from the beginning was not being able to get the leadership to talk to the people who are affected by water rates. Communities that are impacted by the decisions of the authority need to be aware of the infrastructure and costs associated with the authority and who is going to be paying for it,” Hackel said. “These issues are front and center of the problems that are facing us like the recent sinkhole problem we had. You can’t fix it if you don’t have money. So we have to have more local community input in the GLWA.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan also spoke highly of the agency.

“Probably the most significant thing that has happened since the GLAW was created is that it finally ended decades of regional infighting over the issue of water service,” Duggan said. “Most people didn’t think that was possible.”“What GLWA means to Detroit, specifically, is the creation of an annual $4.5 million fund dedicated to helping thousands of more low-income customers keep their water on.”

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said the GLWA exemplifies the need for more regional cooperation.

“The Great Lakes Water Authority continued the successful regional discussions on critical common interests initiated with Cobo Hall several years ago,” Patterson said. “Within the first year of operations, the GLWA refinanced $1.4 billion in bonds that will provide cash savings to its water and sewer ratepayers of over $300 million in the coming 20 years.

“Without the GLWA in place, it is doubtful that this successful refinancing of DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) bonds would have occurred.”

Patterson added: “Through regional cooperation then and now and into the future, the ratepayers and region will secure financial, economic development and operating benefits of a water and sewer service ensuring quality water and proper treatment into the future.”

One example, Patterson cited, is how GLWA water service is now “being offered to the City of Flint, Genesee County and state to ensure that Flint residents are provided the water quality they deserve for the next 30 years.”

Under terms of the GLWA, Detroit will receive $50 million a year for leasing the assets of the DWSD to the GLWA. Sue McCormick, the CEO of GLWA, said the payments are being made on time as agreed.

“Through March 1, 2017 over $37 million in cash has been transferred to DWSD for water system improvements and over $28 million for sewer system improvements,” McCormick explained. “Additionally, $22 million of the lease payment was directed by the city of Detroit to offset a portion of its debt service in fiscal year 2016. The cumulative paid and credited to date is over $87 million.”

Duggan said those lease payments will help in the structural maintenance of DWSD in the long term.

“We will be investing tens of millions of dollars every year into the rebuilding of our city’s water infrastructure. This will mean fewer water main breaks in neighborhoods and a lot of jobs that will be available to Detroit residents,” Duggan said.

McCormick said GLWA, with its 830 employees and an annual operation and maintenance budget of $288 million, is keeping to its promise of a 4 percent cap on revenues.

“GLWA’s most significant challenge right now is recruiting top technical talent — and every position has an increasing level of technical requirements. To meet this need, we recently partnered with Focus: Hope and Henry Ford College to establish the authority’s first ever technical apprenticeship program,” McCormick said.

She said the three-year program will hire and train electrical instrumentation control technicians (EICT), and provide on-the-job training and education at no cost for up to 20 apprentices. They will have the opportunity to work one-on-one with a mentor, as well as attend customized courses designed specifically by GLWA Journey workers at Henry Ford College.

“Upon successful completion of the program, individuals will have obtained an EICT-I certification from Henry Ford College, received a U.S. Department of Labor Journeyman Card, and will receive full-time employment with GLWA, with the opportunity to earn more than $25 per hour,” she said.

Twitter: @bankieT

The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.