The wastewater treatment branch of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is too big and unwieldy. It has a history of bumbling personnel responsibilities, equipment maintenance, accounting and planning. It has had more than it can handle in purchasing replacement parts, coping with combined sewer overflows and disposing of sludge. The department has been rife with bribery, extortion, bid rigging and fraud. These are but examples.
In the recent past, two-thirds to three-quarters of the department’s employees have been on the sewage treatment side of the department’s operations -- too many people with too few skills. For decades, city politicians used department jobs for political patronage. An independent study found that DWSD (then employing about 2000) was overstaffed by 80%. Today, I’m told, the department employs about 1500.
Apparently, the department’s books have been so thoroughly cooked that Detroit’s emergency manager has refused to release annual audits for the last two fiscal years.
For the last seven years, DWSD has had a residential water assistance program (DRWAP) to benefit impoverished city residents. And for those same seven years, DWSD has been collecting regular donations by generous city customers who agreed to include small contributions via their own water bill payments.
Of course, any balance that donations wouldn’t (indeed, didn’t) cover would be passed along (unbeknowingly) to ratepayers in general (80% of whom are in the suburbs).
As nearly everyone knows by now, DWSD has let slide delinquencies on about half of the city’s residential water bills, some for months, some for years. Where has the money donated for the needy gone the last seven years? Don’t expect DWSD to tell.
Also, for long periods, sometimes years, DWSD didn’t even bother to send out bills, much less collect payments, for fees charged for (preventable) stormwater runoff owed by commercial and industrial property owners in the city. As with residential delinquencies, these further revenue lapses were made up by all the ratepayers who were current on their accounts.
The fix for this monumental disaster will take a lot of money and many years, but it’s unavoidable. A regional water authority is essential.
One step at a time, responsible suburban leaders must expand their small, existing wastewater treatment plants and build new ones, employing sound, transparent management and modern, efficient, odorless technology.
And each step along the way, another piece of DWSD’s dysfunctional wastewater treatment facilities can be dismantled.