City water shut-offs to resume soon

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

A retooled water bill assistance program will roll out next week that promises more help for low-income Detroiters, as the city’s water department prepares to resume shut-offs of delinquent residential accounts in May.

The changes involve the $2 million Detroit Water Fund, which was established last year in the wake of national outrage over the shut-offs. But Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration vowed it would not resume residential shut-offs until a better safety net was in place for those truly in need.

City officials said Friday the fund, which is administered by the United Way of Southeast Michigan, soon will pay for 50 percent of eligible customers’ arrearages, rather than the current 25 percent. It also will contribute a certain amount toward future bills, said Detroit Chief Operating Officer Gary Brown.

“It’s a very generous plan,” Brown said. “Certainly, this will be helpful to customers to pay more of their arrearages and to help pay down future arrears.”

Specifics of the revised program will be unveiled next week, Brown said.

Under the current assistance program, residents must have an outstanding balance of $300 to $1,000, maintain average water usage for household size and have an income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. In January, the outstanding balance parameters expanded to $2,000.

Although the city will begin prioritizing residential accounts for shut-off next month, Brown stressed that accounts will not be turned off if customers who cannot afford to pay sign up for assistance.

But a representative from the Detroit Water Brigade, a volunteer group that advocates for families facing water shut-offs, say the assistance plans aren’t working and proposed improvements won’t be enough.

The amount low-income residents are being asked to pay is “still too high,” chief coordinator DeMeeko Williams said. “They have to come down on it more. People are struggling.

“What we want is a positive outcome. The country is watching.”

Brown said about 29,000 residential accounts in Detroit are believed to be delinquent. It’s unclear how many would be pursued for shut-off, which targets accounts that are more than 60 days late or $150 behind.

“We are still encouraging everyone in that category to come in and get on a payment plan,” he said. “If you do, that will suspend any cutoff status.”

The approach differs vastly from the widespread residential shut-offs that kicked off in March 2014.

The aggressive campaign angered residents, activists and civic groups, spurring protests over the city’s treatment of delinquent water customers.

Soon after, former emergency manager Kevyn Orr gave Duggan more control over the water department. Duggan vowed to help needy customers pay their water bills, while holding those who can afford to pay accountable.

New program underway

Meanwhile, a more comprehensive assistance program is underway.

Brown says officials are also working to finalizing the terms of the $6 million Water Rate Assistance Program that will be rolled out in July under the new Great Lakes Water Authority.

That assistance program is being crafted by Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department and 30 nonprofit organizations from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, Brown says.

The WRAP fund is called for under a lease agreement hammered out during the city’s historic bankruptcy. It will be available to applicants once the authority officially takes over and will ultimately replace others moving forward.

Key offerings of the assistance effort, slated for completion in May, will be fixed monthly bills, contributions to pay down arrears and account managers to ensure account holders have the resources needed to stay current. It will also work to alleviate excessive bills tied to plumbing failures.

“The most important part, which has been lacking, is an amount of self-sufficiency,” Brown said. “That’s where the program fell down, by us not having that level of support to our customers to ensure they don’t break the plan.”

Anyone eligible for WRAP who is enrolled in the city’s program should be able to roll into the new plan. All enrolled in the current water fund are 150 percent below the poverty level. The new plan is expected to have the same criteria.

Brown says there are about 29,000 individuals in payment plans through the water department, up from 17,000 a year ago. Brown noted that the amount enrolled isn’t the true measuring stick of success.

“It should be measured by how many people don’t break the plan,” he added.

Water department helped

Several agencies have money to augment what the water department is doing to assist customers. The Water Assistance Volunteer Effort had 198 customers approved in its plan, Wayne Metro had 1,043 and the Heat and Warmth Fund is working to enroll customers in its plan, he said.

Since launching in August, the Detroit Water Fund has had about 3,800 applicants. About 1,800 have qualified and are receiving assistance from the fund, according to the United Way.

The water department last month ramped up efforts to gain compliance from 2,044 commercial accounts to avoid shut-offs for delinquent accounts totaling about $20 million.