ALPENA — Municipalities form water authorities to make things equal among communities and customers and to reduce operational costs, officials from multiple existing Michigan authorities said.
Alpena and Alpena Township may create an authority — essentially a separate governing board that oversees infrastructure or services in multiple communities — to end the city and township’s nearly decade-long battle over water and sewer rates. Alpena Mayor Matt Waligora and Alpena Township Supervisor Nathan Skibbe said they’ve had productive talks.
The township, which buys water and sewer services from the city, disagreed with a rate hike from the city, and the ensuing court fight climbed as high as the Michigan Supreme Court, which recently sent the case back to the local court for trial.
Officials have released few details about what an authority in the Alpena area may look like, but members of established authorities around Michigan say cost benefits and improved intergovernmental relations resulted from their formation. Boards made up of appointed representatives from each community served by the authority make decisions on the water service and set rates.
Alpena Township resident Gordon Luczak said the Alpena-Alpena Township litigation has gone on too long, and, if an authority helps put an end to it, he’s for it, especially if it means he pays the same rates as city residents.
Alpena Township adds its own water charges for township customers.
Under an authority, all residential customers would pay the same rate based on their water usage.
“I live two blocks away from people in the city, and pay a higher rate than they do for using the same system,” Luczak said. “It’s stupid.”
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
Alpena and Alpena Township officials have examined five water authorities in Michigan, including the Huron Shore Regional Utility Authority that serves customers in Tawas, East Tawas, and Oscoda, AuSable, Alabaster, Baldwin, and Greenbush townships.
Tawas City Manager Annge Horning said the authority allows the municipalities to have the same amount of control in setting regulations, rates, and deciding on capital projects.
Without the authority, Tawas would become a regular customer with Baldwin Township, which owns the water production plant, unless Tawas spent millions of dollars to build a plant of its own, she said.
“That would be expensive, and something that really isn’t possible, right now,” she said. “We would rather continue to share resources and be a part of the decision-making process.”
Tim Sheridan, superintendent and licensed water operator for the Blumfield Reese Water Authority near the Thumb, said the authority receives its water from Saginaw and then sells it to its 1,459 customers. Blumfield Township and the village of Reese established the authority in 1968. Denmark Township joined in 1997, and a small portion of Gilford Township came aboard in 2015.
Sheridan said an authority reduces the cost of operations.
“There is a definite cost benefit, because the costs are spread out among more customers,” he said. “Instead of each municipality having to cover the cost of their own system, and having administrators and billing for each, one entity oversees one system. The authority is basically its own municipality.”
Authorities help complete infrastructure projects more efficiently, too, Sheridan said.
Instead of multiple municipalities paying and maintaining their own systems, an authority can pinpoint the infrastructure concerns that need attention and allocate money collected through the sale of the water to accomplish them.
“The system is looked at as a whole, and not several small systems tied into each other,” he said. “You get more bang for your buck, and the areas of most need are addressed, no matter where it is.”
When municipalities work with one another, for whatever reason, Horning said, trust forms, relationships improve, and everybody learns more about the other community and its struggles. Horning said that may lead to them working together more regularly and sharing other resources.
She said local government leaders don’t always see eye-to-eye, but can put most disagreements behind them and work in the best interest of residents.
“It can absolutely improve relationships, but also, if you are voting on the opposite side, it can have the opposite effect,” she said. “Overall, though, I think working together and making decisions together has a positive effect, and you get to know more about the people and their community.”
Horning said getting everybody on the same page early on in the process helps with an authority’s success later.
Most often, one or more municipalities make sacrifices to form an authority, such as surrendering ownership of production and treatment facilities.
The proposed authority between Alpena and Alpena Township’s could mimic the Huron Shore authority, which would mean the city would surrender ownership of its system and roll it up into the authority. It isn’t clear that would happen, because no proposal for an Alpena-area authority has been finalized.
“Some sacrifices need to be made, and then you will have some residents who think they should receive more because they put more into the authority,” she said. “If you can get over those early hurdles, it is a fair and efficient way to provide services fair to everyone.”
Often, the communities in the authority with larger populations and more infrastructure often receive more investment to maintain the system through those communities. Horning said educating the public about how water pipes and other infrastructure affects their service helps people overcome the feeling that they get less service for the same amount of money.
“Some people will feel short-changed,” she said. “They need to know that it is one system, and what impacts one municipality impacts all of them.”