Advocates seek income-based water bills for Detroiters

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Advocates for an income-based water affordability plan for Detroiters gathered Wednesday to highlight a new initiative in Philadelphia that they claim could serve as a viable model here at home.

Detroit city councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez joined a room full of activists for a news conference to discuss Philadelphia’s legislation. The gathering was in advance of a public forum on water planned for Wednesday afternoon at St. Matthew & St. Joseph Episcopal Church on Woodward.

Advocates and officials say the hardships between the two the cities are similar and that Philadelphia’s affordability initiative gives momentum to the prospect of putting one in place in Detroit.

The discussion comes after a divided Detroit City Council last week approved an overall 7.5 percent increase in water rates for city residents.

Castaneda-Lopez, who voted against the hike, says the new rates, which will go into effect Aug. 1, make the need for a water affordability plan even more critical.

“Detroit families deserve the same opportunity as those in Philadelphia to have a system that takes into account a person’s ability to pay, to help prevent shutoffs,” she said.

Philadelphia advocates on Wednesday joined the conversation via Skype to provide an overview of the affordability legislation approved by its city council in June. Under the program, residents’ income would determine how much they pay for water. The Philadelphia council would establish guidelines for income eligibility if the measure is approved by the mayor.

If all necessary approvals take place, the plan should be up and running by 2016, said Rob Ballenger of Philadelphia’s Community Legal Services.

Detroit has a water assistance fund to help those who cannot pay their bills, but it does not provide lower rates for low-income residents — a concept advocates call water affordability.

Philadelphia’s legislation would establish an Income-Based Water Revenue Assistance Program, or IWRAP, to ensure low-income Philadelphians’ water bills are affordable in relation to their income. It would also encourage increased collections and water conservation measures.

The law would require Philadelphia’s Water Revenue Bureau to offer income-based payment plans to low-income residential customers and others who can demonstrate a financial hardship.

It’s not clear how the system would make up the money if low-income residents pay less. Officials said the specific rates and forgiveness terms are being studied.

In 2006, a water affordability plan was crafted for Detroit. It was approved by a past city council, but ultimately not implemented.

Roger Colton, an economist who formerly worked on an affordability plan for Detroit, said such a program actually would aid the department in collecting on accounts.

More than 170,000 residential properties in Philadelphia had tax liens for overdue water bills representing more than $200 million in debt, he noted.