By Bill Laitner

After 15 minutes of voicing last-minute concerns, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners voted 18-2 Wednesday night to join the new Great Lakes Water Authority.

The authority will give Detroit's suburbs their first real voice in setting rates for Detroit's water and sewer service.

"We think this is a new beginning for true, regional collaboration," said Craig Covey, a spokesman for Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash.

Earlier this week, County Executive L. Brooks Patterson praised the deal, saying that creating a regional water authority in southeast Michigan has been the hardest thing he has achieved during 21 years in office.

While Macomb County officials sparred over the agreement this week, Patterson praised the plan that's to govern water and sewer rates in most of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties for the next 40 years.

"From the beginning, I felt that my ratepayers and taxpayers had to be protected, and we think we've reached the point where the safeguards are in place," he said.

Macomb County commissioners are to vote Thursday.

Patterson said he's confident about the deal because his top financial and legal experts helped shape it from the earliest days of Detroit's bankruptcy,

"We've been involved in high-level, bare-knuckled negotiations over this for 15 months. It finally settles this dispute between the Hatfields and McCoys," Patterson said.

"This goes back to the 1970s, and now we finally have a seat at the table that we've been asking for all this time," he said.

For decades, Oakland County officials -- notably former Water Resources Commissioner John McCulloch -- closely monitored details of Detroit's water system, demanding accountability and rate rollbacks in meetings and several lawsuits, Oakland County communications director Bill Mullen said. That history of scrutiny helped pave the way for a deal that's fair to suburbanites, Mullen said.

Even longtime foes of cooperating with Detroit have voiced support for the deal, which would limit rate increases to 4% a year over the agreement's first decade.

"This is better than I expected," County Commissioner Robert Gosselin, R-Troy, said last month when the proposal was announced. Gosselin chaired an Oakland County study group on regionalizing water and sewage service, and last year, echoing Patterson's previous saber-rattling talk, said he favored having Oakland County build its own system and leave Detroit's system, as Genesee County is doing.

Top county experts later said that Genesee's proximity to Lake Huron made its new system affordable, but building a separate system for Oakland users would be prohibitively expensive.

In contrast to Oakland's support for the deal -- called the Great Lakes Water Authority -- Macomb County officials have debated its merits and even ridiculed the proposal.

"There are a lot of holes in this document, and I don't think we should get committed," said Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco said Tuesday. Marrocco said the county should look into building its own water and sewage treatment plant.

The Detroit City Council last month and the Wayne County Board of Commissioners last week approved their participation as board members of the new water authority.

(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press