August 25, 2014 at 10:36 pm

Detroit residents, businesses scramble to make water payments as moratorium ends

Customers fill out forms while they wait in line outside of the Water Department service center on Grand River Ave. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Detroit— Lines were long and extra crews were on hand Monday at Detroit Water and Sewerage centers as hundreds of people looked to settle overdue bills on the last day before a city-imposed moratorium against shutting off water expired.

Lines stretched onto the sidewalk downtown and at a Grand River service center on the city’s west side as people, including Detroiter Ron Williams, looked to make good on their accounts.

Williams, 46, said Monday he was about $300 overdue and was ready to pay.

“I’m just doing this now to make sure I don’t get my water cut off,” he said. “I don’t want that to happen.”

Since March, the department has shut off water to more than 19,000 Detroiters. Of those, 14,000 have had their service restored.

The department had come under fire for an aggressive campaign of shutting off water for residents and businesses who owe more than $150 or are at least two months behind on payments. Officials have said more than $86 million is owed in delinquent bills, including more than $42 million from 74,000 residential accounts.

Water officials say they’re owed more than $26 million from about 10,700 overdue commercial and industrial accounts. Officials admitted they were lax in the past in going after those not paying their bills and were looking to catch up. Some, including Democratic Detroit Congressman John Conyers, called the shut-offs “Draconian.”

But the campaign has netted millions more dollars in collections for the utility compared with prior years. The department collected $503,000 from delinquent accounts in April through July in 2013. For the same four-month period this year, the amount spiked to $2.6 million. The department was on pace to collect more than $1 million in July alone before the moratorium on the shut-offs was announced July 21.

Late Monday, the moratorium ended. Crews will begin shutting off water again to those in arrears Tuesday, said Curtrise Garner, Detroit Water and Sewerage spokeswoman.

“The moratorium gave us quite a bit of time to connect with our customers to make sure communications were going both ways,” Garner said. “It’s always been our goal to help.”

Some groups called for an extension, saying thousands of impoverished people continue to need help in the city.

“Shutting off water creates the conditions for serious health problems,” said Fred Vitale, secretary of the Detroit Green Party. “In Detroit, we have a poverty rate over 40 percent. Studies have shown that people will divert money from food and medicine to pay for utilities.”

The number of residents on payment plan agreements, which allow them to catch up on overdue bills, jumped from 17,000 in July to 25,000 now, officials said.

During the moratorium, scores of Detroit businesses with overdue water bills have had their water shut off even as the city ordered residential shut-offs to stop.

A total of 157 businesses were shut off in recent months for nonpayment, Garner said. But all 157 have had their water turned back on after making payments.

Another 919 businesses avoided the shut-offs by paying their overdue bills or going on a payment plan.

More than 1,500 commercial accounts are on a shut-off list, according to records obtained by The News through the Freedom of Information Act.

“The moratorium was about helping everyone get to their current status even if it is as a payment plan,” Garner said. “We’re hoping we eventually won’t have to cut off anyone.”

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The line stretched out onto the sidewalk at the Water Departmen's Grand ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)