By Rosemary K. Otzman
All 13 communities involved have to sign the proposed, 20-year Downriver Sewage Disposal System Service Agreement with Wayne County for it to be official, but several communities are holding off on their approvals until some issues can be addressed.
“All 13 communities have to agree,” emphasized Belleville Mayor Kerreen Conley at the city council meeting on Feb. 2.
The 13 communities, including Belleville, are: Van Buren and Brownstown townships and the cities of Ecorse, Lincoln Park, River Rouge, Southgate, Wyandotte, Allen Park, Taylor, Dearborn Heights, Romulus, and Riverview.
Mayor Conley brought city attorney Steve Hitchcock to the Feb. 2 council meeting to discuss the details of the agreement.
Hitchcock said an agreement has been under consideration since the former agreement expired in 2012 and a joint management committee was set up by the communities. Then, in late December Wayne County made efforts to solve this problem before Executive Director Robert Ficano left.
There were three main issues Hitchcock outlined: wet weather flow needed to be agreed upon for each community; the makeup of the new joint management board to run the sewer system needed discussion; and the length of the agreement – 20 years – needed amending.
He said the joint management committee met for years with Wayne County trying to work out an agreement. Plans to sue the county were discussed.
That committee was made up of one member from each of the 13 communities.
The new agreement calls for the new operating board to be made up of four members, representing the 13 communities; four representatives of Wayne County; and one representative from the Wayne County Commission.
Hitchcock asked how they could select just four people from 13 communities and said the agreement doesn’t spell that out.
Hitchcock said there were two meetings that week to work on the issues, one specifically on how to select the board members and one on the technology of the flow.
“Also, Romulus has some unique airport uses,” Hitchcock said, adding Romulus is against the agreement at this time.
One of the issues Hitchcock mentioned that was not resolved was that while the county was granting certain authority to this board, the agreement is subject to the County Charter and Wayne County Ordinances and could already be in conflict with them.
He said the County could pass an ordinance to change the sewer ordinance.
“Also, the communities are asked to sign up for 20 years on this agreement,” Hitchcock said.
Councilwoman Kim Tindall interrupted his comments to say, “I’m not lovin’ that.”
Hitchcock said 20 years is too long and should have five year reopeners.
He said there is a lot of built-in faith in the county doing the right thing for the length of the agreement.
“I don’t know where this is going to end up,” Hitchock said. “There is a reluctance by the communities to go forward.”
He said the county approved it in December and wants the communities to approve it as it is, but Hitchcock said he wants to see where the three items that need to be fixed end up.
He said Romulus will try to communicate with the new County Executive Warren Evans.
He said there definitely is a split board. He said somewhat of an issue is that there is so low a quorum needed that many things could be passed by four people, with six present.
“Even on items requiring six votes, they would only need one community member to be in favor,” he said, noting they could up the quorum number and how many it takes to approve changes.
He said six votes is now the super majority and it could be changed to say it will require six votes in favor to pass anything.
“My concern is with the size of the committee,” Councilwoman Tindall said. “Four people out of 13 communities are making the decisions.”
“The county still holds a hammer over our heads,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jack Loria.
Mayor Conley said in the past the joint management committee didn’t approve renewal of the 1962 agreement. The choice is 1962, nothing, or what’s before them, she said.
She said the Thursday, Feb. 5, meeting was to try and gauge where the communities are in their support. She said the new board members must be a community’s elected person or employee, not an attorney or consultant.
“It’s the same alternative we have with water,” said Councilman Tom Fielder. “We’re the smallest. The larger communities have a bigger say.”
Councilman Fielder said County Executive Evans hasn’t filled any significant positions in terms of leadership. He may want the state to deal with the issues, Fielder said.
“What if we have state intervention on this?” Fielder asked.
Hitchcock said the sewer system is more saleable if all 13 communities are on the contract. With an Emergency Manager, that could happen, he said.
“An Emergency Manager will ask, ‘What assets do I have to sell and make cash?’ That’s kinda’ hanging out there, too,” Hitchcock said.
“Your concerns are the length of the agreement and representation?” Fielder asked Hitchcock, and Hitchock said that was so.
“Romulus is against it. Riverview is not sure about it,” Hitchcock said.
DPW Director Keith Tackett said three of the largest communities are in favor.
Mayor Conley said the communities are meeting about these concerns.
“One amendment on the flows impacts four to five communities, counting us,” she said, noting there are different flow rates.
“If 12 other communities agree, we can’t stand alone,” Fielder said. “It would be considered a challenge to county authority.”
“I don’t have a problem voting no here [at the council table]… I have no problem voting no on this,” Councilwoman Tindall said.
“If you vote no, you’re jumping back to the 1962 agreement,” Tackett said. “This deal was brought on because Ficano lost the election. That’s the only reason we got concessions after 4½ years of negotiations.”
“It will be interesting if they don’t get all 13 communities,” Hitchcock said. “That could bring more negotiations.”
“There would be no other choice,” Mayor Conley agreed.
Hitchcock said it will be interesting to watch what happens over the next 90 days.
In other business at the Feb. 2 meeting, the council:
• Opened three sealed bids for planning and zoning services: from Spicer, McKenna, and Carlise Wortman. There was no bid from Birchler Arroyo, the current planning and zoning consultant. The bids were referred to a joint subcommittee of administration and some planning commission members to come up with a recommendation for the first council meeting in March;
• Heard a summary of the audit of the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014 by the city’s financial consultant from Plante Moran. The audit of the $2.2 million budget was done by Alan C. Young, which had no findings to report and no suggestions for improvement. It was like a letter grade of A and was very good, she said. The general fund’s fund balance of $762,000 was a “very healthy 35%” of the budget, she said. Planning Commissioner Michael Renaud asked about the $7 million in unfunded liabilities that keeps on growing. He was told that was set to the side and there were no solutions to that. Fielder said even with draconian cuts in the budget, it wouldn’t touch the $7 million;
• Approved the mayor’s appointments to the Construction Board of Appeals and Property Maintenance, for terms to expire Dec. 31, 2016: John Hennessey, Bob McCraight, Bernie Zarb, Mike Evans, and Jo Watt. Alternate member is Rich Evans, with one alternate vacancy;
• Approved accounts payable of $641,110.28 and the following departmental purchases in excess of $500: to Hennessey Engineers, $703 for consulting and $3,400 for sewer study, both from the Water Department budget; and to Western Wayne County/Mutual Aid dues, $2,319.29 from the general fund for the fire department;
• Heard Mayor Pro Tem Loria remind the public that there are the elderly and others in the community who can’t get out to clear their snow and neighbors should check on them and “give them a hand”; and
• Went into closed-door session to discuss pending union negotiations and came back into regular session only to adjourn.
By Rosemary K. Otzman