In response to serious budget shortfalls in Milwaukee, the City Comptroller in late 2008 proposed privatizing the city-owned Milwaukee Water Works system through a 99-year lease of all the water operations, a form of public-private partnership. The plan was that a one-time payment for the lease would be set aside in an endowment to generate about $30 million annually to help fund city operations.
The city couldn't just cover its budget needs by raising rates itself, because water revenue must be used for water purposes only. The Comptroller understood that water rates usually rise after privatization, and anticipated that the $30 million a year in lease revenue would substitute for additional property taxes, fees, or state or federal revenue.
The Milwaukee Common Council authorized a request for proposals to find an "Advisor Team" to oversee and guide the bidding and contracting process, and received bids from 17 firms. But in May 2009, in response to a public outcry, the Council put the process on hold to better explore revenue options without privatizing.
Strong opposition to the plan arose partly because of the stellar record of the city's public water system and the disastrous record of its privatized sewer system. Milwaukee Water Works, which also supplies water to 15 neighboring communities, has been endorsed by the US Environmental Protection Agency for producing drinking water that is among the highest quality in the nation. On the other hand, billions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage have poured into Lake Michigan and local streams since the system was turned over to two successive French corporations, United Water (owned by Suez) in 1998 and Veolia in 2008.
Following protests by the Keep Public Our Water coalition in June 2009, the Council abandoned the privatization plan.
Advocates for the public system now want to make sure the privatization idea is not resurrected. In September 2009, a resolution was introduced to the Milwaukee Common Council that would ensure the city continues to own and operate the Water Works. The resolution awaits a vote in 2010. In addition, the Wisconsin Legislature is considering two bills that would either forbid or require legislative approval for any sale or lease of the city's water to private business interests.