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Detroit Agrees To Lease Water System To Neighboring Counties

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's cross the divide between Detroit and its suburbs. The city is trying to recover from economic disaster. More prosperous suburbs have not always seen their interests as the same. Now they've agreed to share control of the city's water system, which offers benefits for the suburbs and the bankrupt city. Here's Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Taxicab driver Donovan Hamilton crosses into Detroit City limits, a line he says has separated suburban and city politicians for decades but not the ravages of a rough regional economy.

DONOVAN HAMILTON: I ain't never seen no abandoned building in the suburbs. Now I see them. Car dealerships closing - you go through, like, the little mini-malls, they're closing up. When the city fails, everything around Detroit fails.

KLINEFELTER: Nowhere has the battle between Detroit and its suburbs been more apparent than in the city's beleaguered water system, which serves millions of customers and hundreds of communities. Detroit owns it; the suburbs want to help control it; a federal judge mandated improvements in it. Now Mayor Mike Duggan says the city will lease its water system to the suburbs in return for about $50 million annually.

MAYOR MIKE DUGGAN: Federal court oversight did not work. We've seen rate increases. We've seen 2000 water main breaks a year. This is an agreement that I would not have hesitated to make even if we weren't under the pressure of bankruptcy.

KLINEFELTER: But bankruptcy drove suburban officials, like Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson to reach the deal. He says it gives the suburbs a say in running the water system instead of leaving it in the hands of the bankruptcy judge.

L. BROOKS PATTERSON: He could cram down our throats his settlement of this issue, and this was always looming over our heads like the sword of Damocles that, well, if we don't keep up with a reasonable agreement, then we're going to leave it to one federal judge to make the plan.

KLINEFELTER: Suburban officials also agreed to kick in $4.5 million a year to help struggling water customers pay their bills. Mayor Mike Duggan says the deal means that Detroit's crumbling water infrastructure can finally be improved.

DUGGAN: We are going to go through this city and rebuild our water main system the way it should have been rebuilt years ago.

KLINEFELTER: The deal must be ratified by county commissioners and the Detroit City Council. If it is, Detroit's bankruptcy case will have already produced one historic change, even before the city emerges from Chapter Nine protection. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.