Editorial: Highland Park should pay its own water bill

The Detroit News

Highland Park isn’t paying its water bills, so everyone else in southeastern Michigan will have to pay more each month to cover the shortage. When it comes to water and sewer services, that’s what “regional” looks like.

When the Great Lakes Water Authority was formed to take over the Detroit Water and Sewerage Dept., a major sticking point was the massive debt owed to DWSD by the city of Highland Park. Suburban customers feared they’d get stuck with the obligation if it weren’t resolved before the new authority took over.

It wasn’t. And now all water customers will see a 5 percent hike in the sewer portion of their water bills beginning July 1. Of that amount, 3.2 percent is attributed to resolving the $30 million Highland Park debt, of which all but $4 million is for sewer services.

Communities that have been paying their water bills may wonder how Highland Park was allowed to get so far behind. It’s a fair question. The jurisdiction enclave has not sent bills to its customers since 2012.

A Wayne County Circuit Court judge ordered Highland Park to pay a three-year shortfall totaling $20 million, but refused to attach the judgment to the property tax bills of individual customers. That decision is under appeal.

The community has hired a firm to upgrade its water meters, and has pledged to resume sending out bills.

But by now, many customers are thousands of dollars in arrears, and collecting from a predominately low income population is a long-shot. And there’s no certainty that Highland Park will meet its obligation in the future.

It is in dispute with the Michigan Department of Transportation over the cost of treating run-off water. Highland Park contends the state should pay for water that flows into the sewers from I-75 and the Davison freeways.

Other communities have made cost share agreements with MDOT. Highland Park hasn’t. That’s a first step in bringing the community into compliance.

The state appeals court should side with the GLWA in its request to attach the debt to property taxes. Customers in other communities should not be asked to pay for water used by others.

There’s also the consideration that Highland Park was operating under a consent agreement with the state under the Emergency Manager law during much of the period that bills were not being mailed.

In Flint, the state has accepted responsibility for footing much of the bill from the lead crisis because it was in charge of the city when the decisions on water treatment were made. Likewise, the state believes the Detroit Public Schools debt accrued largely under state oversight also must be paid by all taxpayers.

Highland Park, it would seem, has a good case for making the same request.

Customers in communities that have acted responsibly in mailing and collecting bills should not be on the hook for Highland Park’s negligence.

The community’s water debt is accumulating at a rate of $400,000 a month. The water authority has asked Gov. Rick Snyder to intervene. The state must step in and work with Highland Park to resolve its obligations.