July 29, 2014 at 11:55 pm

Duggan: 'Truly needy' will get help to avoid Detroit water shut-offs

DWSD Deputy Director Darryl Latimer told the City Council more customer service representatives would be added. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan vowed Tuesday to help customers who can’t afford to pay their water bills, while holding those who can accountable as he began to take over responsibility for the city’s Water and Sewerage Department.

Duggan’s statements to help “the truly needy” came after Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr decided Tuesday to let the mayor assume more control over the department — something the mayor has pursued to help solve regional and city rifts on water policy.

The first-term mayor and former Wayne County deputy executive indicated he would unveil a new plan on delinquent payment issues “shortly” after acknowledging that residents complain over long waits when they attempt to make payment arrangements.

“There are funds available to support those who cannot afford their bills — we need to do a much better job in community outreach to tell our residents how to access those funds,” Duggan said in a statement on his Facebook page. “We will be developing a plan that allows those who are truly needy to access financial help and allows those who want to make payment arrangements to do so with shorter wait times. As for those who can pay and choose not to, we won’t force other Detroiters to pay their bills.”

The mayor stressed that when some residents don’t pay bills, the shortfall has to be paid by other Detroiters — not from suburban, state or federal governments.

“These unpaid water bills are Detroit’s alone,” Duggan wrote. “So all bills that remain uncollected this year must be paid for by higher rates on all Detroiters next year.”

Orr’s order gives the mayor the power to manage the utility and make appointments to the Board of Water Commissioners. The board’s seven members — who set rates, oversee DWSD operations and approve contracts — include four members from Detroit and one official each from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

The order comes after the water department has been criticized for water shut-offs that target those who owe more than $150 or are at least two months behind on their payments. The department says it’s owed more than $89 million in active accounts, including more than $43 million from the 80,000 overdue accounts of residents.

“This order provides additional clarity to the powers already delegated to the Mayor,” Orr said in a statement. “ ...This order ensures a common focus on customer service and sound management practices that reflects the city’s commitment to refocusing its efforts to help DWSD customers get and remain current on their water bills.”

Orr’s staff and water commission members have discussed revamping the department for months. Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson have opposed efforts to speed up suburban payments in Detroit’s bankruptcy case to bolster underfunded pensions for DWSD retirees and have complained about a lack of sharing information about the water agency in regional authority talks.

While Duggan will control management and appointments, he can’t make wholesale changes at the water department. Nowling said “Order 31 does not delegate to mayor any authority over negotiations on creation of an authority or any other restructuring issue.”

Detroit and suburban officials were ordered into mediation in April and are under a gag order not to talk publicly on negotiations.

As Orr made the management shift, City Council members grilled DWSD Deputy Director Darryl Latimer Tuesday over issues residents face in making payment arrangements and reaching customer service representatives.

Council members made it clear that the department’s 20 customer service representatives were not enough to handle the thousands of customers who need assistance. Latimer vowed to add more staff and phone lines.

DWSD announced July 21 it was suspending the shut-offs for 15 days. The water department has said it made the move to provide customers an opportunity to make payment arrangements.

The department’s pause came after U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes told water officials the issue was “causing a lot of anger” and hardship among residents and instructed the department to create more options to assist residents.

Water department officials said about half the customers whose water was shut off never made arrangements to get it turned back on, leading officials to believe the service was being used illegally.

Latimer told the council that despite the moratorium, the department has continued to turn off illegal water hookups.

Councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins said the sight of shut-offs continuing despite the moratorium “breeds mistrust.”

Latimer countered that the only shut-offs involve residents who obtain water illegally.

The company and contractors working for the department have shut off water to more than 17,000 Detroiters since March. More than half had their water turned back on after paying their bill or making arrangements for payment plans, officials said. .

Activists first drew attention to the issue last month by filing a human rights complaint with the United Nations. A panel of three U.N. experts concluded Detroit’s shut-off policy may violate international human rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which asked the department to cease termination services and made recommendations for an affordability plan, said Tuesday the transfer of management control to Duggan was “indeed most appropriate and overdue.”

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