By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
ALLEN PARK – Thirteen Downriver communities could become owners of the Downriver Utility Wastewater Authority, instead of customers of a private corporation, which could save the former Wayne County-run system’s customer communities millions.
“Unlike what we have done in the past, the projection is that by getting rid of Wayne County, and introducing some modernization and efficiency, we can save upwards of $4 million a year,” DUWA official and engineer Richard Hinshon said. “In a rate-neutral setting, where we continue to pay the same rates, we have enough savings to cover the cost of this bond issue.”
The 13 communities include Allen Park, Lincoln Park, Southgate, Taylor, Wyandotte, Dearborn Heights, Belleville, Brownstown Township, Ecorse, River Rouge, Romulus and Van Buren Township.
Of those, Allen Park, Dearborn Heights, Brownstown, Romulus and Van Buren send some of their wastewater to another facility.
Hinshon explained to the Allen Park City Council Nov. 22 that the 13 communities could hire a private operator to run the facility while they maintaining control, instead of becoming customers again.
Hinshon said he has been overseeing Wayne County’s system on behalf of the 13 communities since the 1990s as part of a federal consent decree.
He said Wayne County has run the system since the 1960s, and a 50-year service agreement signed in 1962 expired in 2012. He said the system has functioned since then without a contract.
Hinshon said in 2010 the communities told Wayne County they wanted a say in the decision making. In 2014 the two sides settled on a nine-member decision making board; however, when the agreement was about to be approved, incoming Wayne County Executive Warren Evans made a fiscally driven decision to get Wayne County out of the wastewater business.
Hinshon said Evans planned to either sell the system to a third party, the cost of which the system customers would incur, or he would sell it to the communities it serves.
“The communities have since banded together, created this authority, the Downriver Utility Wastewater Authority,” Hinshon said. “And even though the 13 communities are kind of a contentious bunch – it’s not all ‘love, peace, harmony’ – but we all have a common interest in making sure when you flush, it goes away, and it’s properly taken care of, and that we are in compliance with federal regulations, and that we pay a fair price for getting sewage treated.”
He said the 13 communities have submitted an offer to Wayne County to purchase the system, have written a proposed new service agreement, a 140-page document which outlines the rights and responsibilities of the communities and the utility authority.
Hinshon added that while some communities might opt to become “customers” instead of “owners,” the majority of the stakeholder communities would need to become owners.
To transfer the system to DUWA, the 13 cities would need to approve the agreement, which would allow them to obtain a favorable credit rating, then sell bonds to finance its purchase from Wayne County.
Transfer of existing outstanding debt, including the preservation of existing millage debt levies, would be needed, as would the transfer of National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, which authorize wet weather flow blending, to DUWA.
Hinshon said one of the challenges that must be dealt with is the “tremendous departure” of skilled people among those who run the wastewater treatment plant and the county government.
“We’re having difficulty pulling together all the real estate holdings that go with the system,” Hinshon said. “There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of easements for the underground pipes. We need collective bargaining agreements, we need rolling stock inventories.”
He said DUWA is in the process of getting all that information so they can proceed with the deal.
“The sequence will be first get the service agreement signed by all 13 communities,” Hinshon said, “get a credit rating that is hopefully, at a minimum, an investment-grade credit rating for this new utility authority, and then fill out all this very important minutia that has to be part of this transaction.”
(Sue Suchyta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)