Reverend Dr. Deedee Coleman speaks during a Detroit Water Coalition press conference on Tuesday February 28, 2017 at the New St. Paul Tabernacle Church of God in Christ. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News
Detroit — A coalition of city churches is urging Mayor Mike Duggan to intervene and renegotiate what they contend are “unjust and unholy” drainage fees being imposed by the city’s water department.
Pastors of the Detroit Water Equity Coalition, composed of about 300 faith-based groups, came together Tuesday to argue churches in Detroit are “being punished” by a Detroit Water and Sewerage Department policy unveiled last summer to transition all parcels in Detroit to a uniform system for drainage charges over several years.
“Mr. Mayor, we the church community appeal to you to rethink this unjust, unfair and unholy charge on those who live, run their businesses and worship in the city of Detroit,” said the Rev. Deedee Coleman, president of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit, during a news conference at New St. Paul Tabernacle Church of God in Christ. “Fight for us; be our champion. It’s the right thing to do.”
The city’s Board of Water Commissioners adopted the policy last September designed to transition all city parcels to a uniform billing system.
Since 1975, most in Detroit had paid for drainage as part of their water and sewer bills. Some paid on an outdated fixed-rate meter system, while others are were charged based on “impervious acreage,” or the developed portion of their property — a model that will be fully implemented after the transition period. Some 22,000 customers had not been charged at all, water officials have said.
Most city churches are currently paying a fixed rate for drainage each month based on their water meter size, some others previously had not been charged at all and a number of newer churches already are paying based on impervious acreage, water officials said.
The current rate is $750 per acre per month based on the acreage charge. Come January, the city’s churches will become the final group of water department customers charged under the new drainage rate. Additionally, church-owned properties that have never been billed for water and sewer services for vacant land or parking lots they own will also now be charged under the impervious rate, water officials said.
The specific cost per acre for 2018 won’t be set until July. It’s not clear how much revenue the new billing system could reap for the city.
The Tuesday gathering comes after the coalition sent a letter to Duggan’s office last week, demanding he meet with church representatives within the next 30 days to work out reforms that would make the system more equitable.
Coleman said the religious leaders want Duggan to “be our champion” for water equality. The current program, she contends, will harm the churches and leave them vulnerable to closure.
Alexis Wiley, the mayor’s chief of staff, said Tuesday that Duggan believes the concerns are legitimate and he is working to craft a “fair and equitable solution.”
“We have a responsibility to make sure we have a system where sewage isn’t backing up into people’s basements, but also have a responsibility to make sure charges are rolled out in a fair and equitable manner,” she said. “He is really diving into this to make sure that is getting done.”
Duggan, Wiley added, has attended at least a half-dozen meetings with faith-based groups and will continue to do so.
Bishop P.A. Brooks, chairman of the Michigan Council of Bishops of the Church of God in Christ, said the group’s opposition is “nothing personal, it’s about water.”
“This is not political,” said Brooks, adding he believes Duggan will be able to help resolve the concerns. “It’s about survival.”
The existing rates would mean the Cathedral of St. Anthony on Detroit’s east side will see its monthly water bill go from $165 on the metering system to about $1,200 per month for the 1.5-acre property, said Bishop Karl Rodig.
At that cost, Rodig said, the congregation’s clothes and food pantry for the surrounding community will suffer.
“That means we’re taking away from the poor,” said Rodig, adding the services of the church help about 8,000 people. “It affects the whole community.”
The coalition argued Detroit is bearing the cost for drainage on its own and that it should instead be “common to all” in the regional agreement forged during Detroit’s bankruptcy. The deal turned operation of its water and sewer system over to the Great Lakes Water Authority for 40 years.
Water department Director Gary Brown countered that other communities in the authority are contributing their fair share to the wet weather overflow costs. Even so, Brown said he does recognize the churches are struggling with the new costs.
“We’re going to sit down with them and try to figure out what method we can use that would best suit their needs as churches,” he said. “... We are trying to be fair and equitable to all of our customers.”
Duggan briefly addressed the drainage fees Thursday during a budget presentation to Detroit’s City Council in response to concerns raised by Councilman Scott Benson, who said he’s worried the move will push business out of Detroit.
Duggan said the city “did a poor job” of explaining the fee structure before notices went out and “we’re recovering from that now.”
“But I think at the end of the day, everybody’s rates on a per acre basis is going to be down in a few years,” Duggan told council members. “It’s going to be lower, and it’s going to be fair. But we’ve got 30 to 40 years of inequity that we’re trying to make up for now, and it’s got some emotion in it, and I’m well aware of it.”