August 18, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Corporate sponsors give $200,000 toward Detroit Water Fund

United Way President and CEO Michael Brennan speaks at the press conference with Mayor Mike Duggan, left, and UWSEM community care advocate Christine Trice, right. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Detroit — Three corporate sponsors have given a total of $200,000 to jump-start the newly created Detroit Water Fund to help residents struggling to pay their water bills, officials announced Monday.

The United Way pledged $100,000, while Ford Motor Co. Fund and the General Motors Foundation each gave $50,000 as the major donors to the fund. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said Monday that additional corporate contributions are expected by the end of the week.

The Detroit Water Fund, which is managed by the United Way, is part of Duggan’s 10-point plan to improve customer service and provide assistance to avoid water shut-offs. A temporary moratorium on water shut-offs is set to expire Aug. 25.

“We’ve got a great partnership here,” Duggan said. “I’m really pleased that when the call went out that our foundation leaders stepped forward again. We want to make sure we’ve got enough money in this fund before the shutoffs resume so that we have the ability to provide assistance and everybody gets it.”

City 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.

“This fund will play a critical role, particularly as the moratorium rolls off,” United Way CEO Michael Brennan said. “We hope to encourage by individuals, corporations and foundations to make similar gifts so that we're able to respond to all those in need. These funds are going to be helping our friends and neighbors. Issues like this you can't do alone. It only happens when you come together.”

Duggan continued to stress Monday that water isn’t free.

“The way the water system works is every city is responsible for its own water,” Duggan said. “Every time someone in Detroit doesn’t pay their bill, it’s other Detroiters who bear that cost. We’ve got to keep water rates affordable.”

Under the initiative, Duggan said it will be easier to enroll in a payment plan and make arrangements to pay bills.

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 Energy programs for heat assistance will be automatically considered eligible for help with water bills, according to the Duggan administration.

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 before shutting off the water. The new process, which begins Monday, will give people more time to make a payment arrangement, he said. Employees will be putting out about 700 handbills per day, officials 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.

You must have an outstanding balance between $300 to $1,000; maintain average water usage for their household size; and must be either enrolled in DTE’s low Income Self-Sufficiency Plan or have an income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, the threshold is $33,775.

Duggan said more than 7,000 residents have made payment arrangements so far.

“This is the community coming together. We put this plan in relatively short order and it is working,” Duggan said. “If you have an outstanding bill we will work with you, but you have to take the initiative and come in. If you are in need financially, we have the ability to support you with these contributions.”

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department will hold a fair from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Cobo Center. This will be the last chance for residents to enter a payment plan before the city is scheduled to resume shut-offs for delinquent customers.

“We’re saying please take advantage in the next week. We don’t want to turn off anybody’s water,” Duggan said. “If you show up and ask for help, we will work with you and help you.”

DNichols@detroitnews.com
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