Detroit — The city’s water department turned off 17,689 residential water accounts for delinquency through October of this year, a drop over 2016, but the number still left advocacy groups troubled.
The figure represents a 20 percent decline over the same period in 2016, said Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.
Brown partially credited the drop to assistance efforts to some of the 175,000 residential customers in Detroit.
“There’s no doubt that we’re trending in the right direction,” he said. “It’s definitely a success,” said Brown. “With that said, we recognize we still have a ways to go to continue to improve.”
The shutoff volume by the Water and Sewerage Department first was reported Tuesday by Bridge Magazine
Even with the drop, the numbers still were disturbing to water affordability advocates.
“They should not keep looking for these tiny increments and saying ‘That’s progress,’” said Sylvia Orduno, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. “They should be looking at zero shutoffs and full restoration.”
In 2016, there were close to 28,000 service interruptions for nonpayment overall, according to the water department. Since freezing temperatures are about to set in, DWSD doesn’t expect shutoffs for this year to rise above 19,000, according to Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesman for the department.
Brown said cutoffs for delinquency will continue through winter when temperatures are above 32 degrees. Currently, about 12,000 residential customers are at risk, the department said.
In 2014, the water department shut off 30,064 delinquent residential accounts. It turned off 15,461 in 2015 and 30,496 in 2016, according to figures obtained by The News under the Freedom of Information Act.
The water department began this year’s round of shutoffs in April. At the time, officials said nearly 18,000 delinquent residential accounts were at-risk.
The number of accounts facing interruption was down from the 24,302 residential accounts at-risk in April 2016. In April 2014, 40,000 were eligible for shutoff.
Of the residential customers turned off, Brown maintains 90 percent are restored within 48 hours, and most within 24 hours.
Many who receive delinquency notices contact the department before their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan to avoid it, he’s said.
Brown attributes the lower figures this year to community engagement, the department’s efforts to attach customer names to their water accounts as well as assistance programs.
“When you add up all the tools we’re using ... DWSD is doing all the best practices that the water industry is using to make water affordable for our customers,” he said.
Detroit launched the Water Residential Assistance Program in 2015. The regional aid fund was created as part of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged in the city’s bankruptcy.
The program is designed to help customers in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level — $36,450 for a family of four — by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts.
There are 19,000 Detroit households in payment arrangements, including 7,500 enrolled in WRAP, Peckinpaugh said Tuesday.
Brown said 90 percent of the customers who enter WRAP are staying current on their bills.
Regardless, Brown stressed the number of residential delinquencies in Detroit doesn’t reflect the majority of customers.
“I don’t want people to get the impression that most aren’t paying their bills. That’s not true,” he said. “Most Detroiters are current.”
Shortly after this year’s residential shutoffs began, Brown said in May that the number of customers vulnerable to a service interruption had been cut in half.
By mid-June, he reported that only about 1,000 residential customers remained at risk for shutoff over delinquent bills. That was down from about 5,000 at the start of June.
The figures jumped to 10,284 households at-risk as of late September, according to figures previously provided to The News. That compared to 17,239 who were at-risk during the same time the prior year, officials added.
The water department also has ramped up its efforts to gain compliance among its 25,000 commercial account holders.
The number of commercial service interruptions through October of this year is 1,122, Peckinpaugh confirmed.
Most recently, the department created a fraud unit to crack down on illegal and under-billed water usage among its commercial customers.
“It’s obvious that you are going to have more delinquent residential when you have 175,000 accounts,” Brown said. “But we make the (delinquent) commercial accounts a priority.”