Muskegon Heights water plant to cut staff, operating hours; Rate increases still possible

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MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. -- Staff cuts, and a possibility of rate increases for residents and businesses are still on tap as Muskegon Heights faces the loss of 70 percent of its water customers.

Wednesday morning, Muskgeon Heights Mayor Darrell Paige addressed reporters and laid out how the city plans to keep its water plant financially sustainable in the wake of losing Fruitport Township and Norton Shores customers to the city of Muskegon.

The two communities represented two-thirds of Muskegon Heights' wholesale water customers. The decades-long agreement between the city and the two neighboring communities was ended following a dispute over rates and a lawsuit that began in 2008.

The two communities began switching over water services to Muskegon late April 14 with the switch expected to be completed by the end of the day on April 15.

FOX 17 has been working to get details on the transition plan from Muskegon Heights for the past month, and Wednesday Paige reiterated that despite what's been reported, the city had been working on a plan for months.

“When we heard of the impending news we’d be losing the two communities we asked our staff at the filtration plant and staff at City Hall to present proposals in terms of how we can best go forward," he said.

Staffing at the plant will drop from four to three operators, while the city also plans to cut one maintenance position. Paige said there's a possibility affected employees would still be able to retain employment with the city in a different department.

In the next four weeks, the plant will transition from treating water 24 hours per day to just eight. The plant will still treat water seven days per week. During off hours, water at the plant will be automatically pumped and maintained. There will also be alarms in place during off-hours to warn if storage in the water tank drops below a certain level at which point staff would receive automatic warnings.

Paige said the plant has been expanded twice, with the last time being in 2001, and each time was configured so each section of the plant could operate independently.

“That has been the plan from the start, to reduce the daily production and operate sections at a time, alternating those sections so the plant wont seize up or have difficulty," he said.

"The plant can be operated independently of each other, which helps reduce the flow for the plant and reduce the cost.”

For the time being, water rates will remain the same for customers following the most recent price hike this past January, according to Paige. Customers have seen incremental rate increases over the past three years.

Another reevaluation of water rates will happen in November, according to Paige.

“I can’t tell you or promise you that nothing is going to raise and I think I’ve said that before," Paige said. "We can’t promise that and I don’t think anybody would be able to do that, but we are trying to keep it stable as we are right now.”

When asked why there was hesitation to release the plan earlier in order to address growing concerns in the community, Paige said the city was operating on its own schedule.

“We had times that we wanted that we actually wanted to release it, that was basically for us," he said.  "We want to protect our position. I know there’s been a lot of speculation, a lot of concern, but we’ve been on top of it for some time now.”

Earlier this month, FOX 17 uncovered documents from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality stating nearly 30 percent of water produced in Muskegon Heights' system was 'unaccounted.'

“Those are problems that were looked at and corrected," Paige said during Wednesday's press conference. "Some of the water loss is due to main breaks and so on and so forth and we try to address those when they happen."

Paige said he believed the MDEQ was relatively pleased with the transition plan submitted, adding that maintaining the quality of the water was never viewed to be an issue. Paige also maintains the decision to split from Norton Shores and Fruitport Township is beneficial for all involved.

“There’s no animosity (toward Norton Shores and Fruitport)," he said. "When we all got together and talked, we just said we had to do the best thing for our respective communities and that’s what we all thought we were doing.”

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