Authority approves plan to help poorest water customers

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Great Lakes Water Authority on Wednesday approved the terms of a new assistance program for the region’s low-income customers.

The $4.5 million Water Residential Assistance Program will help qualifying customers who are 150 percent below the federal poverty level — $36,450 for a family of four — by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts.

“This is a game-changer for the region,” said Gary Brown, director of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, who helped negotiate the terms of the contract and sits on the six-member water authority board.

“It is a very robust, comprehensive plan that addresses all the issues I’ve seen in the past that caused people to fall out of a plan.”

The WRAP fund is a component of a lease deal crafted during Detroit’s bankruptcy. It was approved unanimously Wednesday.

The program will be administered by the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, which says it will work with community agencies in each county served to make sure customers get the help they need.

Louis Piszker, chief executive officer of the action agency, says the group will take phone calls for help and schedule appointments March 1.

“We’re proud that it’s a regional approach to services and the region is being served by one overarching water assistance program,” he said after the vote. “We are hoping that the program makes water more affordable for people in need.”

In Detroit, there are approximately 175,000 residential accounts. Of those, 60 percent are paying bills on time. Brown has said about 44,000 customers are on payment plans and not subject to shutoff.

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

Under the program, customers in Detroit, for example, 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 — up to $350 — would be paid off. If they continue to meet the payment schedule over another six months, the remaining arrearages — up to $350 — would be taken care of, officials said.

Detroit is set to receive about $1.5 million as part of the regional assistance program. 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.

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

Participants can remain in the program for up to 24 months, but must apply annually, officials said.

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

Williams, who sat on a water affordability panel for the city, has pressed for an amnesty program, saying assistance “is only short-term.”

The contract gained approval 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.

On Wednesday, McCormick remarked that the WRAP is a “landmark program” that’s designed to provide the same level of assistance to customers in Detroit as well as the region.

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