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Detroit — Community activists, retired city employees and members of the public Wednesday voiced their displeasure about the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department's proposed rate hikes for the year.

"I know this department hasn't done everything it can to contain costs and I think there's very poor judgment from the people (on the board) I see today before me," said William Davis, president of the Detroit Active and Retired Employees Association. "This is a very big hardship, especially on retirees and low-income people."

Davis was among nine people who addressed Detroit water commissioners during a public hearing on the proposed increases for water and sewer service in Metro Detroit. The 2 p.m. hearing was held in the Water Commission's Board Room on the fifth floor of the Water Board Building in downtown Detroit.

Two other public hearings on the rate increases are scheduled for 1 p.m. on March 4 and March 11. Both meetings will also be held in the water department's board room.

The water and sewerage department's seven-member board is expected to vote after the March 11 hearing on the rates for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1 — the same day a newly created regional water authority begins partial oversight of the system.

Once the board sets the rates, the Detroit City Council must sign off on them.

Earlier this month, water department officials presented the proposed rates, which increase water service an average of 9.3 percent this year.

Under the plan, rates for the 2015-16 fiscal year will rise 3.4 percent for Detroit customers and 11.3 percent for suburban users, on average.

Initially, all 32 seats for the public in the board room's gallery were taken and a line of people stretched out of the room's doors, but fewer than 10 people addressed the board during the 30-minute hearing.

Sue McCormick, director of the department, told commissioners at the beginning of the hearing, "The proposed increases are not designed to recover the additional cost of providing water and sewer service, but rather address a fundamental shortfall in the DWSD system and reflect specific cost allocations in the proposed 2015-2016 budget."

During the hearing, DeMeeko "Meeko" Williams, political director of the Detroit Water Brigade, a volunteer group that works to bring relief to families facing water shut-offs, presented the board with a petition.

He said the document, signed by 445 people, calls for the department not to implement the rate increases and to forgive customers' debts before the regional water authority begins its partial oversight.

"Detroiters can't pay this money," he said. "We say no water rate increases. We can't pay and we will not pay until everything gets back together the way it should be."

Also Wednesday, a group called the Detroit People's Water Board issued a statement calling on the city's water department to "realize families will continue to be deprived of water unless rates match a family's ability to pay."

"Access to water is a human right," Priscilla Dziubek of the Detroit People's Water Board said in the statement. "People can't function on the most basic levels without it, nor can they be productive members of the society. The failure to address affordability creates unnecessary crises for residents who have enough challenges as it is."

cramirez@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2058

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