August 7, 2014 at 10:01 pm

Detroit groups say Duggan's water plan is just a start

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan talks about the city's 10-point plan for residents to pay their water bills as he stands with religious and community leaders, including, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, third from left. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

detnews on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free

Critics of Detroit water shut-offs welcomed a plan Thursday by Mayor Mike Duggan to make it easier for customers to settle delinquent accounts, but stressed much still needs to change before the controversy abates.

Donnie Whitley, president of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, said he’s glad the city is addressing the issue but is skeptical that customer service will improve.

“Quite a few people called me about not being able to contact anyone” with the water department, said Whitley, adding others faced busy signals and hangups. “That’s the part that has a lot of people very upset. I understand the plan and resources that are available to those who can’t afford or need help, but the customer service is horrible.”

The Rev. Charles Williams II, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network, said the plan must address high water rates that are at the heart of the problem.

“It’s not enough to suggest a plan for those who are shut off without making sure we can keep residents from being shut off by ensuring the prices are affordable,” Williams said. “The center of this problem is still affordability and it is yet to be addressed.”

Duggan said Detroit will resume shut-offs after the current moratorium expires Aug. 25, but he said the city will fix bureaucratic roadblocks that made it difficult for customers to get service restored. He also announced a website, Detroitwaterfund.org, to solicit donations to help low-income residents with water bills.

“We truly think we’re in a situation now where if you want to pay your bill, we’ve made it easier, and if you’re truly in need, we’re going to get you to the right place,” said Duggan, flanked by a cadre of supporters including Water Department Director Sue McCormick; Detroit Branch NAACP President the Rev. Wendell Anthony; City Council President Brenda Jones; and United Way President and CEO Michael Brennan.

“For the great majority of people in this town, the whole process will get a lot better,” Duggan said.

The plan will make it easier for customers to enroll in a payment program, Duggan said. Hours at customer service centers and the department’s call center will be extended, and employees will be added. Parking at customer service locations will be free. Customers already enrolled in DTE programs for heat assistance will be automatically considered eligible for help with water bills, he said.

Residents also will get better notice of impending water shut-offs, Duggan said. Bills will clearly explain the shut-off status and employees will put handbills on doorknobs a week prior to shutting off the water. That will give people more time to make a payment arrangement, Duggan said.

Customers may enroll in a 24-month 10/30/50 payment plan. Under the plan, they can make an arrangement to pay 10 percent of their past due balance. If a payment is missed, people can make another arrangement by putting down 30 percent of what is owed, and if a second payment is missed, 50 percent is due. Anyone who misses a third payment is no longer eligible.

Duggan said the United Way will administer the website to help needy residents. The Detroit Water Fund is open for donations, he said.

“When somebody says water should be free, I don’t know how to filter water and pipe it (from) the river to somebody’s house at no cost,” Duggan said. “Right now, it is other Detroiters paying for it.”

Mayor given back control

Duggan voiced his frustration over the shut-off controversy, saying it wouldn’t have happened if he gotten control over the water system when he took office. He recently was given operational control over the department by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

“Had I been given charge of the water department when I asked for it, this never would have happened,” Duggan said. “I have to deal with reality as it is, and the emergency manager has now recognized the authority needs to be turned back to the elected officials, and we’re fixing it now. It was very frustrating to watch what I thought was a preventable problem.”

The water department first announced July 21 it was suspending shut-offs for 15 days.

$89M owed on water bills

Water officials have come under scrutiny for shutting off the utility for people who owe more than $150 or are at least two months behind on payments. Officials have said more than $89 million is owed in delinquent bills, including more than $43 million from 80,000 residential accounts.

Since March, the department has shut off water to more than 17,000 Detroiters. More than half have had their water service restored after paying their bill or making payment arrangements, officials have said.

But thousands protested the move. The United Nations, celebrities and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes also weighed in with criticism of the plan and called for more options to aid Detroit residents. The shut-offs have been labeled Draconian by some activist organizations.

Anthony, the Detroit Branch NAACP president, said Thursday he is pleased that the mayor and water department are working in tandem on the issue that caused “national and international embarrassment for Detroit.”

“Y’all know as the NAACP we wish it will be longer,” Anthony said of the moratorium. “We are saying we are supportive of this step going forward. Today reflects a major step in the right direction between the city leadership and the community.”

dnichols@detroitnews.com