Baker vows to be regional water authority’s watchdog

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published December 9, 2015

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Sterling Heights Finance and Budget Director Brian Baker, who represents Macomb County on the new regional water authority, is predicting rising water rates over the next two years, though he said he’ll do what he can to be a watchdog in representing the county’s interests and the interests of water rate customers.

Baker said the Great Lakes Water Authority plans to become operational Jan. 1, 2016. As Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel’s appointee to the water authority’s board of directors, Baker said he wants to spread the word on what he is trying to do to make the regional body more efficient and transparent.

“I’m a finance guy, so I’m always looking at finances in terms of how we can save money,” Baker said. “So I hope to take some of those same things that we implemented here (in Sterling Heights) and implement it there.”

The regional authority is set to replace the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in the role of setting water rates for wholesale customers. The authority consists of one representative each from Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties, as well as two representatives from Detroit and one representative from the state.

As Macomb County’s representative, Baker was the only member on the six-person panel to vote earlier this year against a lease agreement associated with the water authority. Last summer, Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor commented on the regional body’s plans and said it seemed like the city would be paying more into the system, while Detroit gets favorable treatment.

Baker said that while regional cooperation is good, he believes this authority was “rammed through” due to bankruptcy, and he said too much of its spending will go to pay off debt and not enough to infrastructure improvement.

He said that out of the GLWA’s estimated $900 million budget, around $400 million will go to debt; $150 million will go to personnel, operations and maintenance; and the rest will primarily go to capital projects and contractual services.

Baker also said that while the true figures won’t be known until February or March,  he expects that water rates will have to go up more than 4 percent — probably more like 10 percent each year for the next two years.

Baker cited the loss of revenue from losing Flint and Genesee County as customers as contributing to the authority’s financial predicament.

“Rates are going to go up whatever they need to go up,” he said.

To alleviate the burden on the poor, the GLWA is setting up a residential assistance program that would distribute money among Detroit and the involved counties to subsidize water bills up to $1,000 per year for families at or below 150 percent of the poverty level, he said.

Baker said water rates are a result of multiple factors, including distance from the water plant, elevation and peak usage.

But he said he hears people who complain about the high cost of water and sewer services — and he agrees with them. He explained that the Sterling Heights City Council had to reassign its water and sewer contracts to the GLWA in November, but things would have been worse had it chosen not to do so.

“Had we not reassigned our contract, we could have been in a worse position where Detroit could have been setting our rates instead of the authority,” he said.

To reduce future water rate increases, Baker said, one of his goals is to serve as a watchdog on spending and efficiency.

He said the authority has already enacted a 40 percent reduction in staffing, and he said the new authority has stopped offering fixed pensions to its employees.

Baker said the GLWA has hired a CEO, and it is working on a contract with her that will tie her pay to performance.

“Secondly, we implemented a new purchasing policy where contracts have to get bid out,” he said. “And thirdly, we’ve got a process in place where we’re amending the budget as we go, so there are no surprises at the end of the year.”

Melissa Roy, a former assistant Macomb County executive who is the executive director of the organization Advancing Macomb, said she believes that Hackel has been pleased with Baker’s preparations so far.

“Mark was especially happy to have a local wholesale customer as a representative of the Great Lakes Water Authority,” she said. “Ultimately, the local communities are the ones that are impacted by these changes.”

Learn more about Sterling Heights by visiting www.sterling-heights.net or by calling (586) 446-2489. Find out more about the Great Lakes Water Authority by visiting www.glwater.org.

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