$1M donated to Detroit water bill assistance program
Detroit — A key consultant in the city’s landmark bankruptcy case has donated $1 million to the Heat and Warmth Fund to aid the organization in rolling out its first-ever water bill assistance program.
The funding from the New York-based investment banking firm Miller Buckfire committed the money to THAW as a giveback to the city in final negotiations over consultant fees tied to bankruptcy services. The firm, which worked closely with the city’s water department during the bankruptcy, has also offered to provide technical assistance and support, said THAW CEO Saunteel Jenkins.
The THAW Water Assistance Program will launch on June 1 for Detroit families, Jenkins said.
Jenkins, a former City Council member, said the fund will pay up to $2,500 per household in help to eligible families that are in shut-off status and at 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
“In 30 years, this is the first time we’ll have an independent water assistance program,” said Jenkins, who heads the nonprofit that provides utility assistance for Michigan residents.
“It’s another option for people. Hopefully, we’ll be able to help many families keep their water on.”
Jenkins said data from the water department show that more than 50 percent of Detroiters owe $500 or less in back payments. The average outstanding payment is about $650, she said.
THAW’s new program is announced as the city gears up to resume shutting off water to delinquent residential accounts Tuesday.
The city began hanging notices on doors of delinquent residential water customers earlier this month, giving them 10 days to sign up for a payment assistance plan or face cutoff.
As of last week, water department officials said about 2,900 door tags had gone out to those scheduled for shut-off.
The department estimates Detroit has 20,000 to 25,000 delinquent residential accounts. Shutoff status comes into play for accounts that are at least 60 days late or owe $150 or more.
City officials have stressed that service won’t be interrupted for delinquent customers who are in a payment plan.
Detroit and the water department faced national criticism over widespread residential shutoffs 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.
“I hope that this year more families are able to get help before they are in crisis,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said once the program begins, THAW will provide the water department with a daily list of individuals who have applied for the program. This will prevent their accounts from being turned off, she said.
Jenkins said THAW’s private donation from Miller Buckfire is the largest nonutility donation in the organization’s history.
THAW is now working on strategies to raise additional dollars to support the program, she said.
Meanwhile, to better help Detroit’s low-income residents, the city last month retooled the existing Detroit Water Fund to cover up to 50 percent of eligible customers’ outstanding bills, rather than the prior 25 percent.
The fund, administered by 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.
A new Water Rate Assistance Program is expected to roll out when the new Great Lakes Water Authority goes into effect on July 1. That $6 million assistance program will replace the city’s existing water fund.
THAW’s new program is independent from the city’s current or future water assistance programs.
Beginning June 1, call (800) 866-THAW or visit thawfund.org for information.