By Frank X Murphy 

November 21, 2015

Efforts continue by white elites in the Detroit suburbs to monetize the infrastructure of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), into the new regional Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA).  This historic asset grab teaches us a lot about what such misleaders really mean by fancy words like “regionalism”, “affordable” water rates, “privatization” and even “democracy”.

An Internet Media Discussion

For example, on November 16, as part of a recent series of one-year-after retrospectives on the historic Detroit municipal bankruptcy, journalist Sara Cwiek posted an article about GLWA on Detroit public radio’s web site.[i]

The piece began by positively describing the water takeover from the perspective of suburban policy makers.  It also briefly raised a few important questions.

Ms. Cwiek acknowledged that critics (including the United Nations) have harshly denounced mass water shut offs initiated under Detroit’s emergency manager in 2014 against many of Detroit’s poorest residents, as “inhumane and ham-fisted”, while being “meant to reassure wary bondholders”.  Significantly, and perhaps for the first time in such a mainstream corporate media report, Ms. Cwiek admitted the nearly total failure of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s much-touted – but unaffordable – water “assistance” plans for poor residents:“After 9 months of the mass shutoffs, just 300 of the nearly 25,000 people put on payment plans were able to keep up.”

This opportunity to participate in the kind of robust public discussion that supposedly characterizes a free society (whether we can all afford water in it or not) led this writer and a few others to post comments.  One comment invited readers to attend a special showing of Kate Levy’s film “Detroit Minds Dying”,[ii] to learn more “about the theft of the water department and this duplicitous step towards privatization of the entire region’s water source.”

That’s where one of the region’s key leaders of our new water order weighed in, revealing the profound contempt he and his associates have for ordinary Detroiters struggling with the brutal conditions of austerity imposed by the emergency-managed bankruptcy on the city and its People.  An almost immediate reply to the comment inviting readers to attend the movie came from Craig Covey.

Mr. Covey is a top assistant to the Oakland County water resources commissioner, and thus one of the key officials with a direct stake in the GLWA smash-and-grab.  He pleads not guilty: “There have been no moves toward privatization of the region’s water supply,” Mr. Covey claimed.  He described the GLWA as “A Win, Win” for both city and suburbs, because the GLWA is at some future time supposed to start paying the city $50 million per year to lease the whole region’s vital water and sewer infrastructure.

Suburban leaders rarely miss a chance to frame such political economic issues of Detroit with bad odor, even after the city: a) provided them with clean water at reasonable rates for many decades, and   b) recently agreed to regionalize the system at bargain basement prices.  In this white supremacist tradition of “regional cooperation” as structured by the suburbs, Mr. Covey concluded with a typical kick in the urban nuts; he alleged that with white People in charge “we can get away from the corruption and mismanagement of the past 40 years.”

A Smoking Gun Financial Memo

What Mr. Covey and his suburban cohorts mean when they describe their opportunistic moves as yielding a “win/win” is clarified by a very recent memorandum, dated November 12, 2015, authored by the Chief Financial Officer of DWSD and GLWA, Nicolette Bateson.  Her brief 2-page report[iii] to the DWSD board regarding the status of GLWA is a masterpiece of Orwellian language.  It summarizes the relatively positive outlook for GLWA on Wall Street (where everybody knows there is absolutely no “corruption and mismanagement” whatsoever).

In summarizing GLWA’s attractive financial prospects, Ms. Bateson acknowledges what the “win/win” really means for People who need water to live in metro Detroit.  For suburbanites, “… rates are considered affordable.”

People in the city, however, do not enjoy such a clear “win”.  There is “significant economic stress in Detroit, which could place downward pressure on utility collection rates within the city…” (Heaven forefend!)

“…[B]ased on the significantly lower income indicators for Detroit, the wholesale rates are considered significantly less affordable when compared to suburban residents…” (emphasis added)

By “significantly less affordable” Ms. Bateson means that in Detroit water is “unaffordable” for many People.  It’s as if, in order to say someone is “dead”, one tactfully referred to them as “significantly less alive.”

Let’s Review!

These recent communications teach that, for metro Detroit’s suburban leaders:

1.    Any attempt to publicly offer a critical perspective on the bankruptcy-arranged white takeover of Detroit’s water system must be immediately attacked and denied.  Because of historic “corruption and mismanagement” that is the only thing you need to know about black Detroit, no bias of white elites can be admitted to determine policy outcomes, by definition;

2.    Water is affordable in the mostly white suburbs, and unaffordable in the overwhelmingly black city – this is known as a “win/win”.  There is no earthly reason to be concerned about the disparity at all;

3.    The only significance this “significantly less” equitable reality has for GLWA’s benevolent and far-seeing leadership is that it may threaten to undermine their credit rating with Wall Street bondholders and banks.  Certainly the fact that far too many Detroiters lack reliable access to water and have suffered violation of their basic human rights by mass water shut offs is of “significantly less” interest, that is none at all; and

4.    This unquestioned fundamentalist belief in corporate bottom line criteria, as the sole basis for evaluating the functioning of a water utility is not in any sense a form of “privatization”.  (See “Optimize This! Water, Leadership, Human Rights And Public Health[iv])

Detroiters know from long experience that there is significantly less truth in statements by white corporate leaders about the human rights of working class People of color, or their communities’ prospects for democracy, regional equity, and access to the necessities of life.  The Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) is a case in point.

Frank X Murphy is the pen name of a lifelong resident of the Detroit area who is now significantly less angry about the self-serving ways of our communities’ leading dominators, after writing this.