Up to 25K face water shut-offs in Detroit

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Delinquent residential water customers in the city will be getting shut-off notices beginning May 11, alerting them of a 10-day window to get assistance or face cutoff.

Monday’s developments come after the city in April retooled a water bill assistance program to better assist delinquent low-income customers in Detroit.

Service will not be turned off if customers who cannot afford to pay sign up for help, says Gary Brown, Detroit's chief operating officer. The city has about 20,000 to 25,000 delinquent residential accounts.

The shut-off notices will be hung on residents' doors. Brown said experience has shown that once the door knockers go out, about 50 percent of the people come in, get on a plan and make a payment. The other 50 percent, he said, will come in and make a payment the day their water is shut off.

"The bottom line is whether you are in that (shut-off) category or not, you need to come in and get on a payment plan," Brown said. "Then you will be assured that your water will not be cut off. If you ignore billing, if you ignore the door knocker and don't come in and get on a payment plan then we don't know how to help you."

On Monday, a subcommittee of the Detroit City Council moved to establish a work group to study the prospect of crafting a water affordability program, which would differ from an assistance program. An affordability program — which has been proposed but never implemented in Detroit — would charge high- and moderate-income residents more for water than low-income residents.

"We're willing to have the discussion about an affordability program, but what we will have in the near future is an assistance program," Brown said. "That's what we've had in the past."

Monday's developments come after the city in April retooled a water bill assistance program to better assist delinquent low-income customers in Detroit.

The existing program, however, will be replaced in July with a more comprehensive approach that will go into effect under the new Great Lakes Water Authority.

The current newly revised assistance fund, established by the Duggan administration last year, now covers up to 50 percent of eligible customers' arrearages, rather than the prior 25 percent. In addition, it pays 25 percent of future bills for up to a year. Customers previously helped by the fund who defaulted out of the program may reapply immediately without penalty.

The Detroit Water Fund is designed for residents with an outstanding balance of $300 to $1,000, who 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.

DWSD Deputy Director Darryl Latimer told a council subcommittee Monday that there are 20,000 to 25,000 residential accounts currently in shut-off status, which means they are at least 60 days late or owe $150 or more. It's unclear how many of the properties may be occupied, he said.

Mayor Mike Duggan's assistance program was established after the city and water department faced national criticism over widespread residential shut-offs that kicked off in March 2014.

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

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

Latimer said about 31,000 residents are in payment plans. That's up from the 11,700 who were in plans when shut-offs started last year.

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 figures that have been provided by the United Way, which administers the program.

However, 30 percent of the 1,856 individuals in the program have "fallen off" and stopped paying, Latimer said.

Brown stressed that measuring success by the number enrolled is how the city has failed in the past.

"Success should be measured by how many we can keep in the (assistance) program," he said.

Councilwoman Janee Ayers on Monday said she supports discussions for an affordability plan. Assistance programs, she said, "aren't working," and now "people are in danger of not having water."

"Obviously assistance, it's great that it's there ... but it's not working," she said, noting technology and staffing challenges are also problematic. "There's no success rate."

Gregg Newsom of the Detroit People's Platform said he'd gladly participate in work group discussions over an affordability program.

"It's nice that (the city is) deciding to talk about the differences between affordability and assistance," he said. "... The (assistance) programs aren't working. I'd like to see the culture shift toward affordability."

Meanwhile, a more comprehensive assistance program is underway. Officials are working to finalizing the terms of the $6 million Water Rate Assistance Program, or WRAP, that will be rolled out in July under the new Great Lakes Water Authority.

That assistance program is being crafted by DWSD and 30 nonprofit organizations from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

It will be available to applicants once the authority officially takes over and will ultimately replace others moving forward, Brown said.

Key offerings 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.

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

In a statement last month, DWSD Director Sue McCormick said the water department's goal is "to make sure that our customers can keep their water on."

She also noted that while the shut-offs will resume, the department expects that many of the accounts will be attached to abandoned or vacant properties.

The water department in March ramped up efforts to gain compliance from 2,044 commercial accounts to avoid shut-offs for delinquent accounts totaling about $20 million. In addition, officials began targeting more than 8,000 hookups deemed illegal. Those accounted for about $13.6 million owed to DWSD.