Detroit water shutoffs set to resume; groups urge plan

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Water shutoffs are expected to resume next week for delinquent residential account holders in Detroit, prompting some to renew the call for a water affordability study.

City Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez joined a group of activists who gathered outside City Hall on Monday to advocate for a water affordability plan, saying the assistance model long-used in Detroit is a “broken” one and may not be the best strategy under the new Great Lakes Water Authority set to take effect July 1.

Lopez said the fact some residents can’t keep up with payments — even after they’re enrolled in an assistance program — means rates are too high.

Assistance plans help delinquent residents get up-to-date on their bills. An affordability plan would reduce rates for some residents, charging high- and moderate-income homeowners more for water than low-income residents. The idea has previously been proposed but never implemented in Detroit.

“As local government, we really need to think of long-term strategies and solutions and what’s going to prevent people from being forced into a situation of crisis,” Lopez said. “What we’re calling for is — at a minimum — a thorough analysis of a water affordability plan. If an assistance plan is better, then OK, we’ll go that route. (But) it’s not a comprehensive solution if you are only looking at one strategy.”

The city began hanging notices on doors of delinquent residential water customers last Monday, giving them 10 days to sign up for a payment assistance plan or face cutoff.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has sent out about 2,900 door tags so far to those scheduled for shut offs to begin May 26, said Greg Eno, a spokesman for the department.

The department has estimated Detroit has 20,000 to 25,000 delinquent residential accounts. Shut-off status comes into play for accounts that are at least 60 days late or owe $150 or more.

City officials have noted service won’t be interrupted for delinquent customers who opt into a payment plan. Detroit Chief Operating Officer Gary Brown has said that once door notices go out about 50 percent of people come in, get on plans and make a payment. Others come in to pay their bills on the day service is shut off, he’s said.

There are about 32,000 customers in payment plans. That number is more than double what it was a year ago, John Roach, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, noted in an email to The Detroit News on Monday.

The council recently passed a resolution asking the water authority to establish a work group to evaluate an affordability plan.

There are various water assistance programs offered to Detroiters, including the Detroit Water Fund, which was established by Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration last summer.

Those programs are set to be replaced with the Water Rate Assistance Program, or WRAP, when the new water authority takes effect.

That $6 million assistance program is being crafted by the water department and about 30 nonprofits from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

The Michigan Welfare Rights Organization is among a few that have bowed out of the discussions, organizer Sylvia Orduno said.

“We had multiple variations of assistance programs and they don’t work,” Orduno told reporters Monday outside the Coleman A. Young Building. “There’s no point in actually spreading this (assistance program) across the region and asking other residents to participate in similar flawed programs. We can do it better.”

In an effort to better help Detroit’s low-income residents, the city retooled the Detroit Water Fund last month to cover up to 50 percent of eligible customers’ outstanding bills, rather than the prior 25 percent.

The fund, administered by the United Way, is designed for residents with an outstanding balance of $300 to $2,000, who maintain average water usage for household size and have an income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

The fund had about 3,800 applicants. Of those, 1,856 qualified and are receiving help. However, water department officials recently noted that about 30 percent of the individuals in the program stopped paying.