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Editorial: Don't stiff Metro Detroit for Highland Park's errors

There’s a mutiny mounting over one Metro Detroit community’s staggering drinking water and sewer service debt — and rightfully so. Highland Park hasn't paid up for years, and now other communities are getting slapped with the bill. 

Many of the 87 communities footing the $54 million owed by Highland Park have said they'll stop paying its debt.

It's time for the state to get involved and rectify this legal and bureaucratic nightmare.

The Great Lakes Water Authority approved a water rate increase in February with almost half of the increase, or 1.15% of the 2.4% hike, stemming from Highland Park’s debt. Since then, many communities have protested being charged the higher rates and have said they will put the debt portion of their payments in escrow until the issue is resolved.

Why should they have to keep paying for the incompetence of another local government? 

More: GLWA faces mutiny in western Wayne County over disputed Highland Park debt

Communities have already paid millions to cover the debt, which they could possibly get back if a solution is reached. Brian Baker, Macomb County GLWA representative and chair of the finance committee, says Macomb County communities have already paid $13.5 million of the Highland Park debt and are on the hook for over a million more by the end of next fiscal year. Oakland and Wayne counties have also paid millions toward the debt. 

Highland Park’s water plant closed in 2012 due to water quality concerns, and the state ordered it to take Detroit water. When GLWA was created in 2016, it continued to provide water, sewer and other services to Highland Park.

Since then, Highland Park has paid 1% of its water bills and 50% of its sewer bills, GLWA claims. Last year, GLWA sued Highland Park for $9.9 million, saying that neither the city nor the state of Michigan paid for water since the state ordered the switch to Detroit’s water in 2012.

The city maintains that it owes nothing and has stopped paying bills because it was overcharged by GLWA. City leaders point to a 2021 court ruling, and claim its water and sewer debt was "subsumed" in a settlement with the city of Detroit. Administrators say they’re still waiting to receive $1 million from Detroit.

GLWA’s lawsuit states Highland Park hasn’t paid its water bills in recent years despite collecting money from residents and businesses for the service. Even worse, financial audits showed the city didn't bother to bill residents for water and sewer services before 2016.

GLWA has argued the state initially said it would pay if Highland Park didn’t, and that's the best solution at this point. The state should pay the bill and take the burden from good-standing Metro Detroit communities. It could even use remaining federal relief funds. 

A long-term solution for Highland Park's malfeasance is clearly needed, but in the meantime spreading the debt to all Michigan taxpayers would help lessen the sting.