Commentary: Time for Sanity

Dec 21, 2010

One thing is for sure. If Michigan is going to get out of the hole it is in and lay the foundation for future prosperity, lots of us are going to have to move out of our economic and political comfort zones.

Unions are going to have to realize that employers and governments can’t afford the same kind of health care and defined-benefit pension plans as when we had full employment at high wages and the Big Three dominated the global automotive economy.

Chambers of Commerce are going to have to realize that there is more to attracting new jobs and business than low taxes.

And everybody is going to have to realize that without a modern, well-functioning infrastructure, we haven’t got a chance.

Which brings me to water. Specifically, the situation in southeast Michigan, where an entity called the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, or DWSD for short, provides water to four million people -- almost half the state‘s population. The service area extends from the Flint area to Monroe to Ann Arbor.

The system, which is entirely owned and operated by the City of Detroit, also provides wastewater, or sewage services, to three million people. For years, the ownership and management of the water department has been increasingly controversial.

The authority is run by a seven-person board. The mayor of Detroit appoints three suburban representatives, but this seems to satisfy nobody. Those outside the city grumble that they have to buy water from Detroit without any real say in how prices are set or the authority is run. Meanwhile, Detroiters have angrily resisted any suggestion that they should share control of the water department.

There’s also been a nasty racial undercurrent  to some of these arguments. Last week, the controversy erupted again when Victor Mercado, a former director of the water department, was indicted for allegedly steering contracts to a crony of Kwame Kilpatrick’s.

Now, a newly elected state representative named Kurt Heise, a Republican from Plymouth Township, says he will sponsor legislation to create a regional authority to run the district, which would eventually evolve into a regional public utility.

Detroiters are certain to oppose this idea -- but it makes perfect sense.  Heise has a background in this area; he’s a former director of Wayne County’s Department of the Environment, a job similar to that of drain commissioner.

In the past, water takeover bills have been introduced that were clearly intended as a slap against Detroit. This doesn’t feel like that. “I want to make this a collaborative process,“ Heise says. He doesn’t propose taking ownership of the assets away from Detroit; he just wants the system run in a rational manner.

This really is an idea whose time as come. Though some Detroit politicians are already issuing knee-jerk responses, a regional authority might easily benefit the city too.

Back when he was running the system, Victor Mercado told me that there were some pipes and drains dating back at least to the 1870s, but there was no money to upgrade them.

This could, and should  change that.

Clean, safe, reliable and relatively cheap water just might be our region and our state’s biggest asset. We’ve all got a vested interest in not screwing it up.