People wait in line to see a representative about their water bill and / or pay their water bill. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
Detroit— Hundreds of residents who are in danger of having their water service shut off, or those who have already been without water, lined up Saturday outside the city’s eastside water department building in the hopes of getting help.
“I don’t know the process, but I know I need some kind of assistance,” said Vernita Turner, a Detroiter who owes $1,800 on deliquent water bills and is hoping to avoid a shutoff. “Everybody’s going through something. You can’t just do that.”
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has recently implemented an aggressive campaign targeting individuals with water bills more than 60 days overdue or more than $150 in arrears. The department estimates about 89,000 residents owe a combined $91 million.
Saturday’s water fair at the eastside customer service center on McNichols near Gratiot was an opportunity for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to sit down with residents and come up with a plan, said Terra DeFoe, an event coordinator who works in Mayor Mike Duggan’s office. About 217 residents were seen by 11 a.m., and dozens more waited in line to see a service representative.
“We want to get them into payment plans and help identify the issues that are happening,” said DeFoe. “We want to help them get information for other organizations to help them with paying.”
Constance Williams, customer service manager with the water department, said the normal regulations were relaxed on Saturday: where the department would typically require 50 to 30 percent of the delinquent bill to be paid before turning back on water service, on Saturday they were accepting as low as 10 percent, one the individual agreed to a feasible payment plan. She said the people had 10 days to pay that first payment, and it would lift the stress of having to worry about getting the water shut off in their homes.
“We do care, we do want to help,” said Williams. “We’re trying to go that extra mile to get their water service restored.”
Detroit had 176,879 active residential water accounts as of June 30. The department had cut off service to more than 2,000 residential accounts in the first two weeks of July. The average residential delinquency is $540 and the average monthly household bill is about $75.
On July 21, the department announced it was issuing a 15-day hold on cutoffs. The move followed protests, criticism from Detroiters, grass-roots organizations, the filing of a federal legal challenge and criticism from the United Nations that “disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water.”
More than 17,000 accounts have had water cutoff since March. The department said thousands of those had their water restored within two days after they paid, or made arrangements to pay, their bills.
Thousands more are suspected of having their water turned back on illegally. The department continues to investigate the unauthorized illegal water usage during the pause in shutoffs. Running water illegally carries $250 fee for the first offense. The second offense comes with a $500 fee. A third carries $660 and water is then turned off from a main line.
Romanda Brooks has been without water for 10 days. She recently had a baby and is worried about what will happen if she cannot have access to water.
“They just showed up and they said, we have so many people we have to shut off and if we catch you trying to turn it back on, they’ll charge you $600,” she said. “I came here to see what they can do to help me.”
The water shutoff campaign has followed years of what the department admitted to was lax enforcement.
Detroit's City Council recently approved a rate increase of 8.7 percent. The increase not only covers the bills of city rate payers, but also the costs associated with individuals who are not paying or are gaming the system.
On Saturday, people began showing up at 6:30 a.m., two hours before the doors opened. Many of the residents who attended the fair were under the impression the water department would be providing funds to help pay off their bills, but that is not the case at this time. Instead, their names were taken down and they were referred to other organizations that could help.
One man waiting in line lamented the state of affairs.
“You need water to bathe, you need water to drink, you need water to cook with,” he said. “Hell, we’ve got all the water resources here, the Great Lakes, the Detroit River. There’s no reason it should be this way.”
Representatives from the Moratorium Now Coalition, which has been holding water shutoff protests every Friday throughout the summer, and the Detroit Water Brigade were present although they weren’t allowed near the line of residents. Instead of active protesting, it seemed as though they were recruiting for future protests.
“This is a public health emergency, said Abayomi Azikiwe, with Moratorium Now Coalition. “The concessions that have been made today are the direct result of the demonstrations that have been made and the national and international outcry.”
Justin Wedes with the Detroit Water Brigade was passing out water bottles and gallons that have been donated from across the country.
“Water is a human right and we have to make sure everyone gets it.”