Public officials often try to privatize water and sewer systems to offset financial shortfalls and fund general government needs. Unfortunately, these privatization deals result in higher bills and poor service.
In October 2008, with fiscal constraints and a looming budget gap in mind, Milwaukee Comptroller W. Martin (Wally) Morics wrote to the common council and recommended a long-term lease of the Milwaukee Water Works, a well-run and well-maintained system. Morics hoped that a company would pay Milwaukee an upfront concession fee of more than half a billion dollars in exchange for the right to control the water utility for as long as 99 years. The city would put the proceeds of the transaction into a special endowment to generate an estimated $30 million annually to fund city services.
The council approved a resolution that authorized the comptroller’s office to seek out a team of financial advisers, who would investigate and facilitate a potential privatization. Half a year later, this process came to a grinding halt.
Organizing Against Privatization
In June 2009, as nearly 200 people rallied on the steps of City Hall to voice their opposition to the privatization proposal, a council committee told the comptroller to hold off on selecting an adviser team and to investigate alternative revenue sources.
“The delay was because of overwhelming public opposition,” said Chip Wall, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 952, part of District Council 48, which has more than 10,000 members in the area.
AFSCME District Council 48 was a member of Keep Public Our Water (KPOW), a broad-based coalition of many labor, faith, consumer, environmental and neighborhood organizations, including Food & Water Watch, the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope and the Riverside Park Neighborhood Association. KPOW opposed leasing the city’s water system.
“I feel this lease is a terrible idea for Milwaukee,” said Wall. “To give public property to private for-profit entities is not smart.”
Karen Royster, the executive director of the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, said the lease proposal is “a desperate measure” that is “shortsighted and would be harmful for the city.”
The coalition canvassed neighborhoods, met with public officials and contacted local radio stations and newspapers to inform the public about the privatization proposal.
Importantly, KPOW organized and shed light on the issue. According to Royster, the city wanted to keep the lease out of the “spotlight.” There were no formal public meetings to inform the community, gauge their opinion or address their concerns. “KPOW was the spotlight,” Royster said. Its efforts forced the council to delay the lease, she said, “because there was too much noise and attention on the proposal.”
In June 2009, after just a few months of organizing, KPOW was able to convince the common council to stop the privatization. It was a major victory for the public.