Detroit to help residents avoid water service shutoffs

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department will host an assistance fair Saturday to help residents behind on their water bills avoid getting their service turned off.

Gary Brown, the department’s director, announced the event Tuesday during a news conference held at the Water Board Building in downtown Detroit.

The Water Assistance Fair will run 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the DWSD’s customer service center at 13303 E. McNichols near Gratiot on the city’s east side.

“The fair is designed to help customers who are past due on their water bills get on a payment plan to avoid disruption of service,” he said.

Detroiter Amparo Hernandez said she plans to attend the fair to try to get help with her water bills. She said she hadn’t heard about it.

“I have to decide between paying my water bill and buying food,” she said Tuesday after leaving the water department’s customer service center at the Water Board Building. “I’m going to go to the fair and see what they can do for me.”

Brown said the department will begin next week shutting off service for customers who are delinquent on their accounts and have not enrolled in payment plans. It began sending notices out to those customers Sunday, he said.

He said DWSD staff and representatives from Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, which runs the region’s water assistance program, will be on hand to help low-income residents with their water bills.

Brown said 300 residents are currently enrolled in the Water Residential Assistance Program. To qualify, customers must have income below 150 percent of the poverty threshold.

“It’s more than just water assistance program,” said Louis Piszker, Wayne Metro Community Action Agency’s CEO. “It not only provides assistance with bill payment, but it also has ancillary services that keep people current on their bills and away from shut-offs.”

For example, the program requires a home water audit, helps with home repairs and provides water conservation classes.

In addition, the DWSD offers Detroit residents its 10/30/50 Plan. Unlike the other water assistance program, the plan is only for Detroit residents and has no income restrictions. Customers in it are required to pay at least 10 percent of their past due amount and spread the rest over 12-24 months.

The DWSD has about 200,000 customers and about 175,000 of them are residential. The average bill is about $75, said Brown, who was named the DWSD’s director by Mayor Mike Duggan in October.

About 30,000 of the department’s residential and commercial customers are on payment plans, he said. However, 23,000 other customers have defaulted on their payments and face shutoffs, Brown said.

He also said about 108,000 of the DWSD’s residential customers pay their bills on time. He added those uncollected accounts cost customers who regularly pay their tabs an average of $10 more on their bills each month.

“If everyone paid their water bills, those customers could save $120 each year,” Brown said. “That would bring everyone’s bill down to about $780 a year instead of $900 a year.”

Collecting from customers behind on their bills has been a longstanding problem for the water department.

Last year, the department shut off water service to 23,300 homes in the city for delinquent accounts. The tab totaled about $26 million. It also shut off service to 680 business customers that owed the DWSD about $41 million.

In 2014, the department’s campaign to collect millions of dollars in unpaid bills led to more than 30,000 shutoffs and a backlash that drew international attention and calls for the United Nations to intervene.

The DWSD provides water and sewer service to homeowners and business in the city of Detroit. Before last summer, it also provided service to 3 million customers in the city’s suburbs.

Last summer, the city leased the DWSD’s system to the Great Lakes Water Authority for 40 years.

Under the deal, which stemmed from the city’s bankruptcy, the authority is leasing the system for $50 million a year plus about $50 million a year toward pension costs and the Water Residential Assistance Program. It also provides wholesale water and sewer services to communities formerly served by the DWSD.

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