July 11, 2014 at 1:00 am

Daniel Howes

Targeting water scofflaws fair, long overdue

How dare those people at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department start running their shop according to general business principles, like asking past-due customers to pay their bills.

That’s not done around here, not when scofflaws could ignore bills without fear of a shut-off, plead poverty, blame accounting snafus in their books, run to City Hall in search of political intervention, or petition the United Nations in the name of human rights violations.

Except that it finally is being done around here. The water department is following its controversial residential crackdown with a similar one for commercial accounts, in the process performing a public service that stretches way beyond fattening the revenue line of the city’s most lucrative asset.

The reaction? Protests Thursday that resulted in eight arrests; letters from Rep. John Conyers, the Detroit Democrat, to President Obama and other officials demanding federal intervention; a petition from MoveOn.org asking the department to “stop violating basic human rights and return clean water” to Detroiters; national media attention to the shut-offs that downplays the economic rationale behind it.

The department brass is endeavoring to set a higher standard, proof of which can be seen in reaction to it. Department leaders are declaring by their actions that it’s not business-as-usual to ignore $90 million-worth of accounts that are 60 days past due, not for a department serving roughly 4 million customers across southeast Michigan.

That’s not anything close to normal. Nor should it be for a city gutting through the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history and hoping to regionalize its water system with neighboring counties. Demonstrating seriousness about delinquency won’t ensure creation of a regional water authority, but it would help.

This is a Detroit riff on the “broken window theory” of revival. By moving to repair what’s long been broken, accepted by many and exploited by some, the department is leading its own effort to modernize a culture marked by entitlement and abandonment.

They’re saying, quite logically, that customers who do pay their bills should not be expected to subsidize in perpetuity those who don’t. And because they don’t pay, it’s not fair — which it’s not — to keep raising rates on payers because others don’t, or won’t, pay their bills.

It’s been that way too long, which is part of the problem. Customers didn’t pay, and the department did not press very hard to collect. Not just residential customers, either. Prominent businesses, nonprofits, hospitals and others populate an official list of non-payers that is having the dramatic effect of forcing the deadbeats to the department’s pay window, a spokesman says.

Roughly 60 percent of people whose water is shut off for lack of payment show up to settle their bills within 24 hours of the shut-off. And 40 percent of the remaining 40 percent follow up within 48 hours, suggesting that a large number of folks fail to pay their bills because they choose not to — not because they can’t.

Blame the water department, partly. Blame a political culture steeped in favoritism and victimization. Blame mismanagement that perpetuated a system in which half of the city’s property owners don’t pay their taxes and thousands ignore their water bills because, well, they can and elected officials willingly wield influence to keep it that way.

“There was no rigid enforcement policy or practice at the water department for years,” Bill Johnson, a department spokesman, said in an interview Thursday. “Some of it was under pressure from the mayor’s office, some of it from City Council.

“You allow the situation to languish and some people think you don’t care,” or that the department won’t pursue those who aren’t paying their bills.

Now they are, sparking the kind of backlash that is predictable in the ossified ways of Old Detroit. Thursday, protests continued over the water shut-offs; one radio report quoted a guy explaining, rightly, that Detroit has a high poverty rate even while complaining that council just agreed to hike water rates nearly another 9 percent.

Why is that? In large part, Johnson explained, the increase is driven by the disproportionately high number of water customers in Detroit who consume water they do not pay for. The result: higher percentage rate increases for Detroiters who do pay than for overall users of the system; their rates are set to increase 4.6 percent, not the 8.7 percent increase in Detroit.

Are there people in Detroit, the poorest major city in America, who cannot afford to pay their water bills? Of course there are — and the water department offers programs to help those who can demonstrate the need, including a million-dollar Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program announced this week.

Residents struggling to pay their water bills are not the central issue. It’s the culture of non-payment that afflicts those with means, too, which needs to change in a bankrupt city scraping for every dollar of revenue it can find.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.