Detroit — The city’s water department began the controversial practice of shutting off water service on Wednesday to some of the nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department shutoffs resumed after notices went out 10 days earlier, water department Director Gary Brown said.
It was unclear Wednesday how many residents had their water service disconnected.
While 17,995 households are vulnerable to having their water turned off, those residents who contact the water department prior to their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan will avoid being cut off — and most do, the water department noted.
And the number of delinquent accounts is down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to water department figures. In April 2014, 40,000 were eligible for shutoff.
On Wednesday, Detroiter Carmen Booker attended the department’s board meeting to complain her water service was shut off although it wasn’t in delinquent status and she received no notice.
“My bill is not in shut-off status,” she said. “Why are you out here?”
By Wednesday afternoon, workers had arrived at her home to restore service, she said. Booker is disputing a recent water bill of more than $500, and she says it isn’t due until May 1.
Brown said once residents are notified, about 90 percent are able to get into a plan and avoid being shut off. Most accounts turned off are restored within 24 hours, he added.
“Every residential Detroit customer has a path not to be shut off by asking for assistance or being placed into a payment plan,” he said. “I’m urging people not to wait until they get a door knocker to come in and ask for assistance to get in a payment plan.”
In March 2015, Detroit launched its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s bankruptcy.
The program was established nearly two years after Detroit’s water department initiated a controversial shutoff campaign for unpaid commercial and residential water accounts to crack down on widespread delinquencies amid its financial crisis.
The program is designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level — which equates to $36,450 for a family of four — by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts.
Since March 2016, nearly $5 million has been dedicated to the program and there are 5,766 Detroit households enrolled, according to figures provided Wednesday by the water department. The retention rate for those enrolled in the program is 90 percent.
Sylvia Orduno, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, said the group is starting to get more calls over the notices and encouraging residents to sign up for assistance programs.
But those programs, she said, won’t bring long-term relief. The group and others have instead advocated for the city to shift its focus to a broader affordability plan.
“We shouldn’t be thinking this is acceptable in our community,” she said. “It’s not OK for Detroit to keep shutting off thousands of people every year, multiple times a year. There are real people behind these numbers.”
In an email to The News, water department spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh noted the department is committed to helping every customer keep water on and provides at least three advance notifications encouraging those facing a service interruption to contact the department to make payment arrangements.
The outreach and assistance efforts, he said, have been successful, with the number of customers facing potential service interruption at less than half of what it was three years ago. The number of residents in payment plans rose from 12,000 to 44,000 in the last three years, he said.
Brown also has noted the next round of water rates are expected to be approved in the coming weeks and they will likely be the lowest for customers in several decades.
He attributed the lower rates to the success of the department’s water assistance programs and improved collections.
“That got us $57 million in additional revenue, and it resulted in not having $57 million in bad debt to pass on to customers in next year’s rates,” Brown has said.
Residents can pay online at detroitmi.gov/dwsd, by phone with a credit card at (313) 267-8000 or in person with cash, check or credit card. There are also 28 payment kiosks in and around the city available for Detroit residents to pay water and energy bills.
Staff Writer Candice Williams contributed.