Whitmer administration strikes deal to solve long-running water dispute in Highland Park

Woodward Avenue in Highland Park on March 30, 2020. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

By Kyle Kaminski

October 19, 2023

A tentative deal between the Great Lakes Water Authority and Highland Park will end a 10-year dispute over unpaid water bills and cover millions of dollars in infrastructure repairs.

HIGHLAND PARK—Under a new deal brokered this week by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration through the Great Lakes Water Authority, the state of Michigan has committed to covering tens of millions of dollars in water infrastructure repairs for the city of Highland Park.

And if it gets approved by all parties, the deal would effectively erase about $55 million in unpaid water bills in one of the most segregated and economically depressed cities in the country.

“Every Michigander should be able to live in a community that can deliver safe, affordable, and accessible water,” Whitmer said in a statement Wednesday. “An agreement will help move this community forward, lower costs, and implement a fairer system for surrounding communities.”

Highland Park is about six miles north of Detroit and home to about 10,000 Michiganders. The Great Recession has left the city facing a financial crisis which led to talks of bankruptcy and disinvestment in public services—including its water infrastructure, which is about 120 years old and relies on antiquated or obsolete water mains to deliver water throughout the city.

State officials estimate the city loses about 70% of its water due to inadequate infrastructure, which led to disputes—and multiple ongoing lawsuits—between the city and the authority over its water usage and exactly how much the city and its residents should be billed for its services.

In April, Highland Park Mayor Glenda McDonald said it is “unjust and unconscionable” for 2,000 households in Highland Park with a median household income of $20,000 a year to have a water and sewer bill of $3,500 per household, which amounts to 17.5% percent of their income.

Under the agreement announced this week, those lawsuits—as well as a $24 million judgment against Highland Park—will be dismissed, and that disputed debt will be wiped clean altogether.

“Our goal has always been to resolve the situation in a way that one, doesn’t put this large financial judgment on the backs of Highland Park residents, and two, addresses long-term water infrastructure needs of Highland Park,” said state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit).

The tentative deal involves $70 million for upgrading water infrastructure in the city of Highland Park and $30 million for repairs to the Great Lakes Water Authority’s regional system in Wayne, Cacomb, and Oakland counties, reports the Detroit News. The Legislature has already appropriated $25 million to the water authority; the rest still needs approval from lawmakers.

If approved, the funding would be earmarked for repairing the city’s obsolete sewer and water system—including the full replacement of its antiquated water mains and service lines, which state officials said will both lower costs for residents and prevent leaks into the sewage system.

“Highland Park residents, many of whom are seniors on a fixed income, in poverty, or low-income households, simply do not have the financial ability to take on this judgment without devastating consequences,” said state Rep. Mike McFall (D-Hazel Park). “The agreement that was approved by the city today is a win for Highland Park and the surrounding communities, who will see major savings and record infrastructure upgrades in their neighborhoods.”

The state also agreed to install new meters to estimate the sewage flow produced by Highland Park, which is designed to prevent future billing disputes over both water and sewer bills. The deal was unanimously approved at a City Council meeting on Wednesday evening, but still requires formal approval from the board of the Great Lakes Water Authority to take effect.

“Since I took office, we’ve made record investments in water infrastructure and affordability,” Whitmer said in a statement. “I’ll continue working with local partners to offset costs, keep water rates affordable, and, most importantly, keep safe water flowing to homes in the region.”

READ MORE: 9 Michigan Communities Score State Grants to Protect Drinking Water

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Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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