July 15, 2014 at 11:56 pm

Bankruptcy judge urges help with Detroiters' water bills

A bankruptcy judge says thousands of Detroit water shut-offs are “bad publicity” for the city and told the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Tuesday to devise more ways to help residents pay their bills.

“It’s a problem that’s affecting this bankruptcy,” U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes said in a court hearing, reacting to an aggressive city program since spring that has stopped water service to more than 15,000 households in the city of an estimated 688,000.

Rhodes said the city is “getting a reputation not only in this country but around the world” for the shut-offs — causing “a lot of anger” and hardship among residents. In late June, three United Nations experts said Detroit’s shut-off policy may violate international human rights.

Deputy water director Darryl Latimer was in Rhodes’ court explaining the once-lax department’s new policy of shutting off water to customers more than 60 days late or $150 behind in their bills. The average residential delinquency is $540, he said. The average monthly household bill is about $75.

“We’re trying to control the rates in the city of Detroit for all of our customers,” Latimer said. “For those with affordability issues, we’re asking them to come forward so we can assist them.”

The department says thousands of delinquent customers have had their water restored within 48 hours after paying overdue bills or enrolling in a payment plan.

Residents behind on their water bills can choose a plan that typically involves paying 30 percent of the outstanding bill and then the remainder — while keeping current on the present bill — over as long as 36 months.

This month, the department announced a Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program with $1 million in funding to help customers who can’t afford water. It is financed by a voluntary 50-cent surcharge the department has collected for several years.

The department also refers those with financial troubles to aid organizations at the county and state levels, including the Department of Human Services and The Heat and Warmth Fund, Latimer said. And it has a water fair to explain payment options.

“It sounds like to me the problem is informing and encouraging people what their options are to maintain their water services,” said Rhodes, who did not appear upset. “If that’s what it is, that’s a solvable problem. I encourage you to work within your department to come up with a much more aggressive plan to solve that problem.”

Rhodes asked Latimer to return Monday with further options for those who can’t afford to pay their water bill.