Board confirms Macomb County rep on regional water authority

By: Jeremy Selweski | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published November 19, 2014

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MACOMB COUNTY — Brian Baker, the longtime finance and budget director for the city of Sterling Heights, will serve as Macomb County’s representative on the new Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) board after receiving widespread support from the local communities, the county executive and the county board.

At its Nov. 13 meeting, the Macomb County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to confirm Baker’s appointment to the GLWA board for a period of one year. A month earlier, County Executive Mark Hackel had appointed Baker to the position following a recommendation from the Macomb Area Communities for Regional Opportunities (MACRO).

According to Board of Commissioners Chair Dave Flynn, D-Sterling Heights, the board’s decision was an easy one because of Baker’s extensive municipal finance experience, strong working relationship with many Macomb County communities and vast knowledge of water/sewer rate structure.

“As chief financial officer of the fourth-largest city in Michigan, Brian has a ton of experience working with water and sewer finance,” Flynn said. “He is an expert on the very topic that this new authority is tasked with handling. It would be hard to imagine anyone else in Macomb County who is better suited for this role. Sterling Heights is without question one of the best-run cities in the state, and that is due in large part to Brian’s financial diligence.”

MACRO is a group of 11 local municipalities that also includes Macomb County, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). It meets monthly to collaborate on regional issues and address the financial challenges affecting Macomb County communities.

With Baker’s ringing endorsement from MACRO, Hackel believes that he is “the people’s choice” to represent Macomb County on the GLWA board.

“MACRO suggested Brian because they felt that he was the best person for the job, and I agree with them,” he said. “He’s done a remarkable job of managing the finances of the city of Sterling Heights, so I’m very confident with this selection. If he were ever to leave Sterling Heights, I would hire him in a heartbeat — that’s how much confidence I have in his abilities.”

The GLWA will be run by a six-member governing board with two appointments made by the city of Detroit; one appointment each made by Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties; and one appointment made by the governor. All decisions made by the board will require a supermajority vote or approval by at least five of the six members. The board has a period of 200 days to draft and finalize the terms of a lease agreement with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

On Oct. 9, the Board of Commissioners voted 10-3 to make Macomb County a member of the GLWA. Many of the commissioners took serious issue with the proposal — even several of those who voted “yes” — but overall, the board felt that it was the best option available for Macomb County.

The deal amounts to a 40-year, $50 million annual lease by the three counties from the city of Detroit. The GLWA will take over Detroit Water and Sewer’s infrastructure, appoint a general manager and set water/sewer rates for residents in the future.

The new authority was also approved by the Detroit City Council, the Wayne County Board of Commissioners and the Oakland County Board of Commissioners. Its creation was part of Detroit’s ongoing bankruptcy process, which included an order by a federal bankruptcy judge that each participating community make a decision about joining the GLWA by Oct. 10.

As Sterling Heights’ finance and budget director, Baker has worked extensively on setting the city’s water and sewer rates for the past 28 years. He was able to modernize its rate structure, resulting in the lowest rates of any community served by Detroit Water and Sewer. He also has vast experience with performance-based budgeting, labor negotiations, pension management and bond rating agencies.

In addition, he currently serves on the Project Oversight Committee for Detroit Water and Sewer, which helps recommend efficiencies and best practices for the debt-riddled department. He has also worked regionally in numerous capacities with groups such as SEMCOG and the governor’s Municipal Revenue Task Force.

For Flynn, it will require someone with such an impressive résumé to serve on the GLWA board, a regional collaboration that has been decades in the making.

“Brian has a huge job in front of him over the next 200 days to move this regional authority forward and make sure that the terms of the lease are good for Macomb County,” he said. “But it’s clear that he’s one of the greatest financial professionals that we have. MACRO selected him for this position, which just goes to show the huge level of respect that he has from his peers.”

Hackel is optimistic that with Baker in this role, Macomb County communities — and, more importantly, the local residents who pay the ever-increasing water/sewer rates passed down from Detroit — have a delegate who will keep their best interests in mind.

“The locals have not been involved from the beginning,” he said. “They have never had a voice in this process — until now. I’m glad that we have the right person at the right time who truly understands these complex finances, and who can represent Macomb County ratepayers on this board. If all goes well and he’s willing to do it, I would love for Brian to be reappointed a year from now.”

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