Paying water bills in Detroit is a test of good will
Even Good Samaritans have trouble paying water bills in Detroit.
It’s not because they don’t have the money. It’s because the city makes it difficult to pay.
That’s one lesson Tifus Gates said she learned after spending hours on the phone this week trying to pay the water bill of Billie Williams, who hasn’t had running water for weeks. The unemployed father of a severely autistic adult son was featured in a Monday article in The Detroit News that examined the impact of citywide shut-offs.
Moved by Williams’ plight, Gates offered to pay $647 to return his service, and called the city. First, she was hung up on, she said, then transferred repeatedly, put on hold and told for two days the city wouldn’t allow her to settle the bill by credit card.
“I wanted to do the right thing, but, dang, Detroit makes it hard,” said Gates, a former Detroit resident who is now an Army contractor in Utah.
By late Thursday — after intervention from City Hall and The News — account mixups were fixed and Gates was able to make the payment to restore service. But activists say such hassles are commonplace among 23,000 Detroiters whose water has been shut off in the past 12 months.
More help is on the way, said Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Mayor Mike Duggan is working with nonprofit agencies to assist Williams and another woman featured in the article, Fayette Coleman, who has collected rainwater in a trash can outside her house for two years.
Among other things, the city is trying to find new housing and other assistance, Brown said.
“This is bigger than water, and their situations are a lot to stomach,” said Curtrise Garner, a spokeswoman for the water department. “This is a priority, and we’re moving aggressively.”
Reforms are coming
Brown took over the water department this fall and vows to make payments easier. Several reforms are coming next year, including the placement of payment kiosks throughout the city and an overhaul of an outdated billing system blamed for allowing huge bills to accumulate in vacant homes.
“Everything that has to do with customer service is not convenient,” Brown said. “Fixing that is my top priority.”
Among other issues, Gates was prevented from paying Williams’ bill because the city flagged it as “cash-only” after owners of his rental in northwest Detroit repeatedly paid old water bills with bad checks, Brown said.
That would have required Williams to pay in person — and bring along his son, who is 250 pounds, nonverbal and comes across as aggressive.
The last time they went to the water department — soon after the November shut-off — a misunderstanding nearly led to an altercation between a security guard and the 23-year-old son, Garmel.
“It’s frustrating. I’m just tired,” said Williams, 53. “I need to get out of this situation.”
Williams has not worked for more than 20 years, after his wife left, leaving him to care for two severely autistic children. One died in April and he borrowed so much money for the funeral he hasn’t caught up, Williams said. Garmel is not toilet trained and wears diapers that leak onto sheets, making life without running water difficult.
Gates, who still has family in Metro Detroit, got in touch with Williams on Tuesday after reading the article in the paper.
On Wednesday, she told The News about the problems trying to make the payment. The city vowed to resolve the situation after the newspaper inquired about it.
But Gates said she was still blocked from making a payment most of Thursday. It was cleared up late in the afternoon.
By then, though, another social services agency, Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, announced it would pay Williams’ bill and he should have his water service restored by Christmas. The Wyandotte-based agency is expected to provide other services after a scheduled meeting with him on Monday, said spokeswoman Mia Cupp.
Gates paid the bill anyway so the water would get turned on sooner.
“We’re pulling all these strings and it’s still so hard,” Gates said. “What about people who don’t have someone to stand up for them?”
The back-and-forth may be dizzying, but it isn’t unusual when it comes to the Detroit Water Department, city watchdogs said.
Beulah Walker, a volunteer coordinator with the grassroots group Detroit Water Brigade, said that even though city residential accounts owe $42.9 million, customer service workers make it hard to accept payments.
“This is what we deal with every day,” Walker said. “Everyone says, ‘Just pay your bill.’ But then they make you jump through all these hoops and won’t even take your money.”
Brown has appointed a panel of nationwide experts to study making water more affordable for impoverished residents. The group is expected to present recommendations in January to the Detroit City Council.
Among other things, the city is expected to expand relief efforts beyond the $1 million now available. Another $4.5 million is expected to become available through a program of the Great Lakes Water Authority, a newly created regional system that manages water and sewer service in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
Brown said he wants to hire customer service agents who can act as social workers and direct the needy to job training programs.