Detroit Suburbs brace for water rate increases; look to privatization for relief
Many communities expect rates to increase by double digits for the next several years

Hefty increases
Metro Detroit communities with the largest percentage increase in charges for water and/or sewer usage:
   * Eastpointe: combined sewer and water rates up 30 percent.
   * New Baltimore: water rates up 24 percent.
   * Grosse Ile Township: combined water and sewer rates up 17 percent.
   * Taylor: combined water and sewer rates up 15 percent.

By Craig Garrett, and Joel Kurth / The Detroit News

    Metro Detroit suburbanites will pay much more than they expected for water and sewage services starting next month, with most communities planning double-digit hikes.
   Average rates for combined water and sewer service are going up 12.5 percent across Metro Detroit, meaning a person paying $80 a quarter for using 18,000 gallons, the average amount per household, will pay $40 more a year, for a total of $360.
   Coupled with big increases in gasoline and home energy costs, the water and sewer hikes add to the financial pinch, residents said.
   "We're not traveling as much. We're sitting at home. We usually travel during the summer months," said Mark Labadie, 33, of Eastpointe. "I'm not running the sprinklers this year."
   Labadie and his Eastpointe neighbors will pay aboutr 30 percent more for water and to have their sewer waste treated.
   And water officials say this year's rate increases are just the beginning because double-digit rate increases are expected for the next several years to pay for improvements to Detroit's aging water and sewer system, which serves 126 municipalities from Monroe County to Flint.
   Rapid residential growth in parts of Metro Detroit is straining the system as tens of thousands of new houses and businesses are built in the 126 communities served by the Detroit Department of Water and Sewerage.
   Detroit alone is spending more than $1 billion to improve its water and sewer treatment system, much of which dates back a century and more.
   The costs of the improvements are largely shared by Detroit's customers and will be spread over the next five years. The system now pumps out 650 million gallons a day to its 4.3 million customers.
   Detroit water commissioners voted to increase water and sewer rates an average of 10 percent in February. The increases take effect July 1.
   A half-dozen communities are raising rates more than 20 percent for water and sewage.
   Trenton is charging its residents 35 percent more for water. Taylor's homeowners will pay 30 percent more for sewers. Tiny Keego Harbor in Oakland County is raising its rates by 29 percent.
   Trenton buffers the water hike by charging low fees to treat sewage, one of the few communities to provide such a service.
   Other cities had smaller-than-average increases, and they are tacking on surcharges to water bills to make up the difference.
   In Plymouth, city officials voted to raise water rates only 5.5 percent, but the city is charging an additional 4.5 percent service fee for processing water bills.
   Plymouth will use the extra funding to repair and maintain an aging sewer and water system, City Manager Paul Sincock said. "It's still only pennies a gallon," he said.
   Dearborn water rates are going up by nearly 10 percent, in part, to help pay for a massive sewer project being ordered by the federal government.
    
Is Privatization an answer?
   In fact, Detroit water officials say 75 percent are mandated by the federal government, a cost that could beg the question of whether the entire system should be privatized.
   Privatizing "is always a hot button, but I think we're doing a pretty good job," Detroit water spokeswoman Mary Mazur said.
   State legislators even tried to turn the city's water department over to a regional agency in 1999. That effort failed.
   Turning municipal water departments over to private contractors is a trend nationwide, particularly along the East Coast. The second largest water treatment plant in New England recently privatized in Springfield, Mass.
   Officials in Stonington, Conn., turned over three water and sewer treatment plants to a global company that provides drinking water in faraway places like Saudia Arabia. A community official said Stonington realized $500,000 in savings in the first full year, mostly on labor and supply costs.
   Water quality in Stonington didn't suffer in the transition from public to private hands, said Harold Storrs, who had run the water department before the takeover.
   "In fact, it's higher," he said.