Come December 31, 2012, my tenure as Water Resources Commissioner will come to an end. I will leave in place a proactive department comprised of 220 dedicated employees who are the very best at what they do.
During my 12-year tenure, the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office has been at the vanguard in reducing costs, placing a premium on customer service and initiating innovative programs that have provided taxpayers with the “most bang for their buck.” Before departing, I’d like to mention a few of the major achievements of which I am most proud.
The 35-year-old lawsuit filed by my predecessor, George W. Kuhn, to force the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to comply with the Federal Clean Water Act became my fight.
I led the effort to revamp the Detroit Water Board and how it operates by insisting on a greater voice at the table for Oakland, Wayne and Macomb Counties in the decision-making process. My office also successfully fought the City of Detroit’s lawsuit to end Federal Court oversight of the DWSD.
I am encouraged about the future of the DWSD because of a comprehensive report which calls for a wholesale reorganization of the department. It gives me hope that years of bloated bureaucracy and mismanagement at the DWSD are finally nearing an end. But despite the encouraging signs of progress, there is still much work left to do. One thing I strongly recommend is that a second opinion be sought before any drastic cuts or changes are made to the DWSD operation. In addition, it would be a good idea to search out other entities nationwide which have been successful in transforming their water/wastewater systems into well-managed, cost-effective and efficient operations.
As the DWSD moves forward, my hope is that it will make a good faith effort to reassess how it does business and provides services. The reality is that the water and sewer industry is rapidly changing. That means we need to improve the operating process to reduce costs by instituting new water technologies, as Oakland County has sought to achieve with its innovative H2Opportunities program. The fact is our underground infrastructure is aging and decaying, making innovative methods to streamline current practices absolutely essential.
The WRC initiated a Collaborative Asset Management System (CAMS), which ascertains the condition of our water, sewer and drain infrastructure. Historically the department has been largely reactive in responding to emergencies, but by using CAMS we’ve been able to use a predictive or preventative approach to gain insight into immediate infrastructure needs like identifying the age and condition of existing underground pipes. With the support of the county executive and the board of commissioners, $6.5 million has been invested in this system, which is available to all county departments and communities in Oakland County. CAMS will soon have a public service portal where citizens can click on the WRC website to report any problems relative to water, sewer, drains or even road problems. CAMS is a collaborative effort involving the WRC, the Road Commission for Oakland County, and Oakland County Information Technology.
For citizens logging onto the website with complaints, all they have to do is enter the street address or location of the particular problem, and then they’ll be asked to describe what is causing the trouble, whether it’s drainage, sewer, water over the road etc., and then the system automatically decides which agency has the responsibility to resolve the issue. The bottom line is CAMS simplifies the process of identifying whatever is causing the problem and then sending the appropriate agency out to take care of it.
More than a year ago, I was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder to the Environmental Advisory Rules Committee as part of the governor’s Office of Regulatory Reinvention. Since being appointed, the Committee and I have made 77 recommendations on how to improve Michigan’s environmental regulations, while maintaining critical protections. Some of the recommendations include assisting in Michigan’s economic recovery, eliminating unnecessary and costly reporting regulations regarding environmental matters, improving the transparency of government, allowing for innovation by developing a new comprehensive Beneficial Reuse Act and making Michigan a more competitive place to work and conduct business.
Last July, Oakland County issued $6.8 million in bonds to build a new three million gallon composite elevated water storage facility at the Farmington Hills Department of Public Works yard. The low 2.7 percent interest rate on the bonds, derived from the county’s prized AAA bond rating, will save Farmington Hills water customers more than $200,000 over the next 10 years because of the low interest rate. In addition, they’ll save $3.5 million annually in water rate fees charged by the DWSD. Aside from the huge cost savings, the new water tower will build in greater redundancy, provide emergency water supplies for unforeseen circumstances and result in better fire protection.
When the George W. Kuhn Retention Treatment (GWK) Basin was expanded in 2006, an opportunity presented itself to upgrade the technology. As a result, GWK is now among the most technologically advanced facilities of its kind and one of the largest screening facilities in North America. The screens catch large objects before they reach the Red Run Drain, sets them aside where they are dried on site and then taken to a landfill for disposal. The GWK expansion has been successful in reducing overflow volume by an average of 875 million gallons per year. GWK is the largest of the four retention treatment basins operated by Oakland County. The others are smaller and located in Birmingham and Beverly Hills.
Oakland County’s agreement with Pontiac to restructure the city’s Waste Water Treatment Plant is a precedent-setting deal that can serve as a model for other financially struggling communities nationwide. This innovative arrangement has received widespread praise in the media including CNBC. Fifty-eight million dollars’ worth of bonds were sold to help pay off Pontiac’s debt and eliminate its General Fund deficit while Oakland County gained more capacity for the 13 nearby communities that now send their flow to Detroit. Waterford and West Bloomfield will be the biggest beneficiaries since 30 percent of their wastewater can now be diverted to the Pontiac treatment plant rather than sending it downriver to the DWSD.
In 2006, I initiated H2Opportunities, a program designed to attract new emerging water technologies to Oakland County and Michigan to field-test promising new technologies to determine their viability in a real-world setting. Oakland County has been aggressive in seeking out companies worldwide that have developed these initiatives because of their unlimited potential to attract fresh economic investment and create new jobs. The emerging water technologies under review have great promise for solving some of our most pressing water needs. Consider, for example, rotating discs that can break down wastewater and safely discharge it back into the environment. How about this – a revolutionary process with the capability to detect E. coli levels in lakes within minutes rather than hours. Here’s something -- water that can be stored in inflatable containers for extended periods of time during emergencies such as what occurred during the Blackout of 2003. Then there are turbines that generate enough electricity locally, where none now exists, to operate monitoring systems to save taxpayer dollars. Here’s another one – software that can manage hundreds of miles of infrastructure to provide huge amounts of data. Because I believe so fervently in the potential and promise of H2Opportunities, I plan to continue my efforts to bring these new water technologies to market after I leave office.
One of the things which needed attention when I became Water Resources Commissioner was the formulation of a comprehensive policy for setting aside adequate cash reserves our major water systems were collecting through water rates. The absence of a plan for dealing with this important issue posed a serious problem that needed to be immediately addressed in a proactive manner. By taking advantage of my accounting background and working with a consultant, I developed a policy to set aside a certain percentage of the millions of dollars being collected from rate payers to beef up our cash reserves that would be available to our systems for emergencies or to pay for capital improvements. I’m happy to report that adequate cash reserves are now on hand for all of Oakland County’s major systems. I would strongly urge my successor to continue this policy so that reserve funds are used appropriately.
During my tenure I introduced improvements to the county’s sewer metering system. By utilizing technology, the Water Resources Commissioner’s Office has been able to put into place a process which more accurately measures the quantity of sewer flow being discharged by each community. This upgrade in tracking data has resulted in a more equitable water metering system that ensures that all communities are paying their fair share for the water they use. In the past, some communities weren’t paying enough for water usage. That anomaly in the system has been fixed so that now all communities are being properly billed for the service they receive.
The WRC’s ISO 9001 and 14000 certification, although somewhat esoteric to the average person, is an important piece of what we do here. It requires employees to closely scrutinize their jobs to determine how they interact with the overall mission of the organization. In essence, they have to justify the work they perform. This process has allowed us to be proactive in tracking customer complaints and concerns with follow-up surveys to gauge our effectiveness in improving service and heightening customer satisfaction. I found the ISO system to be an effective tool for my staff in discerning whether they were doing an effective job of serving customers. As the DWSD moves in the direction of a more transparent, cost-effective and efficient operation, it will need to employ ISO practices because it can’t just hope for positive outcomes. Benchmarks will need to be put in place that accurately and honestly guides the DWSD to where it wants to be – an organization that has reached the pinnacle of Best Practices in the industry. The road will be long and hard, but I’m confident that the DWSD, under the inspired leadership of Sue McCormick, will one day reach that goal.
Our educational outreach has been extensive and widespread during my time as Water Resources Commissioner because of the importance of instilling in our young people an appreciation and respect for the eco-system they will one day be charged with protecting and preserving. Through such programs as Dirt Doctors, Drain Detectives and the Kids’ Clean Water Calendar Contest, along with our partnerships with Oakland University and the Cranbrook Institute of Science, WRC employees have taught the next generation of environmental stewards what they can do to fight water pollution, prevent soil erosion and safeguard the sanctity of our watersheds.
The Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office is blessed with a group of individuals who day in and day out exude excellence in the performance of their duties, and for this they have been deservedly recognized and honored with a multitude of awards at the state and national level. Both the Commerce Township Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Walled Lake –Novi Wastewater Treatment Plant received the highest honor attainable from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) – the prestigious Platinum Award. This award is symbolic of excellence in wastewater treatment as measured by a facility’s perfect performance record with respect to its compliance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit requirements. These awards are symbolic of the quality of service and dedication Oakland County residents receive on a daily basis from the talented men and women of the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office. My chest bursts with pride at what they have accomplished.
Reflecting back on my 22 years in Oakland County government, as a member of the Board of Commissioners and as Water Resources Commissioner, I take great pride in the role I’ve played in moving this great county forward to a point, where today, it is among the most progressive, fiscally well-managed and innovative counties in America.
To my incredibly talented and dedicated employees, you are truly the unsung heroes of the Water Resources Commissioner’s Office. I couldn’t have done it without you. You will forever have my undying gratitude and appreciation for setting the Gold Standard by which other entities in the water and wastewater field are measured.
And finally let me say what an honor and privilege it has been to serve you – the citizens of Oakland County.