Program might get OK to help poorest water customers

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Great Lakes Water Authority could sign off this week on the terms of a new assistance program for the region’s low-income water customers.

The Water Residential Assistance Program — or WRAP fund — is a component of a lease deal crafted during the city’s historic bankruptcy.

The $4.6 million effort would help qualifying customers who are 150 percent below the federal poverty level — that threshold is $36,450 for a family of four — by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing arrearages, said Gary Brown, director of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

“It’s huge,” said Brown, who sits on the water authority board and helped negotiate the plan. “People fail because they have to make a monthly payment and a portion of the arrears.”

But Demeeko Williams, chief director of the Detroit Water Brigade, a grassroots group that has fought water shutoffs, contends the assistance program falls short.

“Assistance is only short-term. We don’t want any more assistance,” said Williams, who sat on a water affordability panel for the city and is pushing for an amnesty program. “We want true affordability for the region.”

The water authority could vote on the plan during a Wednesday workshop or at its Feb. 24 board meeting. Once it gains approval, the regional assistance program is expected to be up and running by March 1.

“The Great Lakes Water Authority, as a board, this is their plan and they have to approve it,” Brown said. “They want (Detroit) to succeed and they want to help us succeed.”

A vote on the assistance plan is anticipated days after Sue McCormick, CEO of the Great Lakes Water Authority, told The Detroit News that Metro Detroiters could see higher water bills next year.

In Detroit, there are approximately 175,000 residential accounts. Of those, 60 percent are paying bills on time. There are currently about 44,000 customers on a payment plans and not subject to shutoff, said Brown, adding no residential accounts have been turned off for nonpayment since October.

The average monthly residential bill in Detroit is $75, and the arrears average is $663, Brown says.

Under the program, qualifying customers would get $25 per month toward their total bill, reducing the monthly payment to $50. If payments are made on time for six months, half of that customer’s arrears will be paid off. If they continue to meet the payment schedule over another six months, the arrearages will be completely paid off, Brown said.

Some residents would also be eligible for up to $1,000 per household in plumbing fixes to address leaks and keep usage down.

Detroit is set to receive approximately $1.5 million as part of the regional assistance program provided through the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency. In addition, another $1 million amassed through a voluntary contribution on DWSD customer’s water bills could also be rolled in for Detroit customers in the WRAP.

Brown reiterated the proposed terms of the assistance program Monday during a water affordability presentation to a City Council subcommittee.