Detroit hits residents on water shut-offs as businesses slide

Joel Kurth
The Detroit News
  • Detroit’s two-year crackdown on water delinquencies has focused almost entirely on residents
  • Commercial debt is nearly twice as much as residential debt
  • One city resident said she works two jobs to buy bottled water for 4 kids, 3 adult relatives

Detroit last year shut water service to 23,300 homes — the equivalent of every household in the city of Pontiac — but left the taps running at thousands of businesses that owe millions of dollars, city documents show.

Renea Robinson carries containers of water for cooking to her kitchen. She said she bought the house out of tax foreclosure, but has been unable to have water service restored. “I worry all the time ...,” she said.

Businesses and government-owned properties owe nearly twice as much as residences, $41 million compared with $26 million for homes, but only 680 were shut off in 2015, according to records obtained by The Detroit News through the Freedom of Information Act.

It’s a discrepancy that outrages neighborhood activists, who say residents have unfairly borne the brunt of a two-year shut-off campaign on delinquent accounts. Some of the biggest debts are on government-owned properties such as the Detroit Housing Commission, the Detroit Reentry Center prison, Belle Isle and the city’s golf courses, according to the records.

“They don’t get threats. They don’t get shut-off notices. They get to dispute their bills,” said Maureen Taylor, state chairwoman of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization.

“When we try to dispute a bill, we still get shut off.”

At its peak last fall, the city averaged 2,000 residential shut-offs per week, according to block-level disconnection data obtained by The News. They’re spread throughout the city, particularly in dense, well-established neighborhoods in the northwest and northeast sides.

On a one-mile stretch of Vancouver near Livernois, service was shut to 13 homes last year — including the brick home of Renea Robinson.

The single mother of four young children has lived without water for six months, after the house she rented for seven years went into foreclosure because the landlord didn’t pay taxes or the $5,000 water bill.

Robinson works two janitorial jobs to care for her children, two parents and an aunt — and said she spends three hours a day and more than $100 per week buying bottled water.

On her bedroom door, she’s written her four children’s names and her credo: “Push harder. Four people depend on you!! They didn’t ask to be here. Stand up and step up.”

“I worry all the time, but the only thing I can do is keep moving forward,” said Robinson, 30. “I’m not the type to give up.”

Within a half mile of her house, a warehouse on Tireman owes $29,000 in delinquent water bills, city records show, while at least four other businesses nearby have delinquencies of $4,000 or more.

None has been disconnected.

A vow to change

Gary Brown, who in October became director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, acknowledged the city has focused the shut-off campaign almost entirely on residents.

Last year, 1 in 9 of the city’s 200,000 residential accounts were disconnected, compared to 1 in 37 of the city’s 25,000 non-residential accounts, the records show.

Brown vows change.

“There’s no way we can focus on residential accounts when we have such large arrearages in commercial. They’re my first priority now,” he said.

Since January, the city has sued 17 delinquent businesses including several apartment complexes. Two customer service agents are working exclusively on collecting from 10,000 delinquent non-residential accounts, Brown said. Those that don’t pay will be shut off, he said.

The program of residential shut-offs was suspended in the winter and will continue when weather warms. Since the campaign began in 2014, the city has conducted about 50,000 shut-offs.

Brown predicted the number of residential shut-offs will decline this year because the goal of the effort was to put delinquent customers in payment plans. Some 44,000 residents have done so, helping the city boost its collection rate from 85 percent last year to 90 percent now, Brown said. Assistance programs also have increased.

Detroit delinquent water shutoffs in 2015

“I got in here and there was one tool being used: shut-offs,” Brown said.

“Now, I’m trying to use more tools and change the business practices. We are going to go after those with the biggest bills.”

Businesses dispute bills

Many commercial owners dispute the bills.

City records claim the state owes more than $1 million — $648,000 for the Detroit Reentry Center prison and $473,000 for Belle Isle, which the state Department of Natural Resources has managed since 2014.

Both are more than 60 days overdue and eligible for shut-offs, records show.

“We very much disagree on the amount they think we owe,” said Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Department of Corrections that operates the prison formerly known as the Ryan Correctional Facility.

The delinquent bills from Belle Isle date back to Detroit’s management of the island park and the state isn’t responsible, said Ron Olson, chief of parks for the state DNR.

In fact, the city “owes us a credit of $190,000 because we overpaid,” Olson said.

Detroit also claims Vargo Golf Co. owes $442,000 for four city-owned golf courses it manages. Nearly $300,000 of that is for the Palmer Park course at Woodward and Seven Mile.

There’s no water meter at that course, said Rob Vargo, a manager for the company that received a one-year extension last week from the Detroit City Council to continue managing the courses.

The company is in talks with the water department over the bill, Vargo said.

“We’re obviously disputing the bill,” he said. “There’s no way to estimate water usage at the golf courses. We’re a company that always asks questions when things don’t look right.”

It’s a similar argument at the Port of Detroit’s Marine Terminal on West Jefferson, which the city claims owes $430,000. The bill is in the name of a company that hasn’t operated the terminal in more than 10 years, said Mickey Blashfield, director of government relations for CenTra Inc., a Warren-based company that oversees the terminal and whose affiliate holdings include the Ambassador Bridge.

Not all dispute the bills. The Detroit Board of Education is on a payment plan for its $271,000 debt, which district spokeswoman Michelle A. Zdrodowski said includes several closed schools now owned by the city.

Russell Industrial Center property manager Eric Novack said the complex of studios and shops is working to pay a bill the city claims is $405,000, of which $100,000 is 60 days overdue.

“We’re doing the best we can,” he said.

Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, said he is working to reform the department’s billing system.

Billing system reform

Many disagreements over bills stem from drainage charges based on the size of properties.

Like residential accounts, many doubt the legitimacy of bills because of years of mismanagement and poor record keeping at the water department, said DeMeeko Williams, chief coordinator of the Detroit Water Brigade, a nonprofit that delivers water to those without.

Brown said he’s working on reforms, including an overhaul to a billing system. Drainage fees, though, “aren’t difficult” to comprehend, he contended.

“It’s not until they are in danger of being disconnected do they raise objections,” Brown said.

Back on Vancouver, Robinson said her house has rapidly deteriorated since losing water.

She bought the home out of tax foreclosure for $1,600 last fall. That was supposed to erase the water debt, but Robinson said she still got bills for months saying she owed thousands of dollars. That’s been cleared up — but Robinson said the service hasn’t been restored because of frequent basement flooding.

Now, the ceiling is crumbling. Mold is growing in closets. Flooding destroyed her washing machine and furnace.

So she heats the home with the stove and space heaters and spends afternoons searching for the best bargains on bottled water.

“I have to believe that somehow, things are going to turn around,” Robinson said.

Estimates elusive about occupied homes without water

Detroit officials admit they don’t know how many occupied homes lack running water.

“It’s not something we track,” said Darryl Latimer, an executive with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

The city last year shut water to 23,300 residential accounts and has put 44,000 customers on payment plans since 2014. Latimer said it’s impossible to know how many remain without water without a door-to-door survey.

That’s largely because many of the shut-offs involved vacant homes and because the city addressed bills to “resident” rather than individuals. That’s expected to change this year.

Using water records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, The Detroit News found that 11,800 residential accounts last year were disconnected and aren’t now on any repayment plan. The number was calculated by comparing customer service numbers of shut-offs and repayment plans.

Latimer said he doesn’t believe that many occupied homes still lack water. He said The News’ number is inflated because it could include vacant homes, high-turnover rentals and delinquents who settled their bill.

Water activist Monica Lewis Patrick contended The News’ figure is too low. Her group, We the People, is working with several universities to study the impact of the shut-offs. It estimates 17,000 to 24,000 homes are without water in Detroit.

Staff Writer Christine MacDonald contributed.

Shutoff numbers

Residential delinquencies: $26 million

Non-residential delinquencies: $41 million

2015 residential shutoffs: 23,300

2015 non-residential shutoffs: 680

Source: City of Detroit