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Water, transit still sore spots for Metro Detroit's "Big 4"

Jan 21, 2015

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan explains the Great Lakes Water Authority. A memorandum of understanding creating the GLWA was signed by the city, three counties and state in September 2014.
Credit detroitmi.gov

Troubles with a new regional water system, uncertainty about roads and mass transit, and ongoing budget difficulties—all were topics among Detroit’s “Big Four” leaders Tuesday.

The Big Four includes the heads of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, along with Detroit’s mayor. In recent years, they’ve met held an annual public meet-up to discuss regional cooperation and other issues in southeast Michigan.

One big topic of conversation: in the wake of Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy, Wayne County now appears to be on the brink.

Newly-elected Wayne County Executive Warren Evans says the county’s budget deficit is “deeper than we thought.”

“Frankly, I don’t know how deep the hole is,” said Evans, indicating he might have a better grasp on that by the end of the month. “We’re trying to get a real grip on the problem. At this point, everything is on the table in terms of getting out of it.”

Another major topic, and a source of tension among the panel: the new Great Lakes Water Authority.

The city of Detroit and surrounding counties are now technically partners in the Authority, which emerged from Detroit’s bankruptcy process. It essentially regionalizes the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

But both Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel now say revenue estimates and other numbers the city offered during the negotiation process just aren’t holding up to scrutiny.

“We walked out the door, we slapped each other on the back, and 30-60 days later the alarm goes off,” Patterson said. “Those numbers aren’t coming in where they have to. And if the numbers are off, the whole paradigm will ultimately fail.”

The memorandum of understanding formalizing the Authority has a provision allowing the counties to withdraw if it appears that a pledge to limit water rate increases over 10 years won’t pan out.

Hackel expressed concern about possible repercussions of a looming state budget deficit on already-struggling local governments and school districts.

Hackel also blasted Lansing for punting the issue of road funding to voters. He worried about what will happen if a proposal to bump the statewide sales tax from 6% to 7% fails this spring.

Not only would that take efforts to fund road repairs back to square one, Hackel said—it could also jeopardize efforts to find a funding mechanism for Metro Detroit’s new Regional Transit Authority, and its nascent plans to finally plan and build a functional, region-wide mass transit system.

“That does not solve the problem of funding regional transit,” Hackel said. “And that’s going to be a huge undertaking.”