August 8, 2014 at 8:14 am

Daniel Howes

Duggan's water plan taps need for change

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan goes over the city's 10-point plan to make it easier for customers to settle delinquent acounts as Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, left, listens. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Let’s get something straight: a water department that spent way too many years giving way too many Detroiters a pass for not paying their bills is a management failure.

Years of bad management, not the workers of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, and an abrupt about-face on collections culminated in the hot mess that Mayor Mike Duggan is moving to clean up after his law school chum, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, dumped it in his lap to avoid gumming up the city’s historic Chapter 9 bankruptcy case.

Management’s chronic mismanagement — whether because of political duress from the mayor’s office, meddlesome members of City Council, a generalized sense of entitlement, or all three — helped to create an expectation that folks must not need to pay if they don’t and the water keeps flowing.

Not anymore. In a 10-point plan unveiled Thursday at City Hall, Duggan and his new charges at DWSD are moving to reform a culture of managerial laziness and customer apathy by pushing to improve service, clarify communications and detail policies.

Collection efforts remain. Shut offs of deadbeat commercial accounts are continuing, and they will resume for residential customers once the shut-off moratorium ends Aug. 25. Those who legitimately cannot pay can get help from the social service agencies, including the United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

The department will waive turn-on fees and late payment penalties, and improve notification efforts for those facing shut off; extend hours at department customer care centers and increase staffing; and sponsor an Aug. 23 “Water Affordability Fair” at Cobo Center, a good-faith effort by DWSD to get the word out.

The message for scofflaws is as clear as the water at Port Austin on a sunny day. Water processed, delivered and maintained by the city’s sprawling department should no longer be expected to be free, and all but the most strapped Detroiters will be expected to pay for what they use.

“The best water in the world is certainly worth paying for,” the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, told a news conference detailing the department’s new collection-and-outreach plan. “We certainly recognize having the best water does not come freely. Today represents a major step in the right direction between city leaders and the citizenry.”

It also represents something too seldom seen in a Detroit that spent at least the past decade ignoring reality despite a downward spiral toward the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history: namely, recognizing failure and moving quickly to find a better solution tailored to best (or better) business practices and the reality of Detroit today.

Orr, the emergency manager empowered by Public Act 436, agreed to give the mayor oversight over the contentious water department once it became clear the crackdown was a poorly executed policy threatening the city’s historic bankruptcy and further sullying its image with the over-heated rhetoric of human rights violations.

“Had I been given charge of the water department when I asked for it this wouldn’t have happened,” Duggan said. “We’re fixing it now and there’s no point in looking back. There have been a lot of things that have happened in this time I’m not happy with.”

Maybe so. But the simple fact is that Duggan is getting what he asked for — and arguably deserves, a chance to restructure the customer service operations of one of the city’s most vital departments. And not just the city; DWSD water flows to roughly 40 percent of the state’s population.

Detroit’s water crackdown, a heavy-handed effort executed clumsily, gives Duggan and the leaders standing with him at Thursday’s presser a chance to influence the civic culture. It also gives the management of DWSD, overseen by the mayor and his appointees, the excuse to overhaul inefficient customer service practices allowed to languish for too long.

Just like police who come when called, a water department that responds to its customers, answers their questions and provides service is more likely to be a water department that gets paid more of what it is owed. A DWSD that lowers its delinquency rate and improves collections also is a department that has more credibility in talks to create a regional water authority with suburban counties.

The plan unveiled Thursday is a positive step forward for a city still gutting through bankruptcy. Any thinking, marginally responsible person knows that a water department cannot carry indefinitely $90 million in delinquencies and be expected to help power Detroit’s drive out of bankruptcy.

No more, that is, than the city can afford to have half of its residential property owners decline to pay their property taxes. The mayor’s water plan, heavy on help and positive communication, nevertheless sends a message of change: pay your bills or be prepared to show why you can’t.

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2106
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.